Playwright Isobel McArthur on her adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice and the lesbian love story in this beloved novel
BY CARRIE LYELL AND FELICITAS SOPHIE VAN LAAK
When Isobel McArthur first graduated from drama school, the choice of roles she could audition for was limited. Consequently, she began to write her own relatable, three-dimensional female characters, most recently adapting the original 1813 Pride And Prejudice novel for the stage, reinterpreting 19th century women’s struggles for a contemporary audience. Pride And Prejudice* (*Sort Of) first opened at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre in Summer 2018 and is currently touring the UK until March 2020.
DIVA: What about Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice spoke to you and made you want to adapt it for the stage?
Isobel McArthur: To be honest, I wasn’t familiar with Jane Austen before and in an odd way that has helped. There was some inverted snobbery on my part, saying: “Isn’t this the kind of lofty, intellectually exclusive stuff that puts people off?”. There might be something unhelpful about how we understand Austen. But the idea of doing it at all came from myself and [director] Paul Brotherston who had an image in his head of women with guitars doing Jane Austen. Once I started to read it, I knew how funny it was and how an amazing opportunity it was to have and adapt it for a 21st century audience.
Were you nervous about taking on such an iconic and beloved novel?
I think so. There are some rules that you need to do something like this as the people who really know it and really love it are expecting certain things. But first and foremost, what does the person who has never heard of Jane Austen need to know to have a really interesting and generously presented story that they can understand everything out of? Also, many people who know Pride And Prejudice from the film adaptations only remember Mr. Darcy. It says a lot – and not necessarily a lot of good – about society that it’s a story about five women and we only remember the male love-interest.
How did you strike a balance between paying homage to Austen and bringing a contemporary spin to it?
There are two things that played in. First, it is literally what you choose to include and what you keep out, and the other is the tone and the type of language. I wanted to get a sense of Austen and sometimes it is about trying to copy her style in a simplified way, or including the iconic phrase. I think it’s about deciding where things meet their precedents. I’ve tried to have a bit of a cocktail of contemporary and old-fashioned stuff, in such a way that we’re not totally restricted by the rule of propriety and manners as they are in the book, so as an essential part of the drama.
Do you think that helps make it accessible, and speaks to those people who do not know – or perhaps not even like – Pride And Prejudice?
I think I was well placed to have come to it for the first time without the experience of having to write about it at school, having a literature degree, but by no means being an Austen-fan. So, being confident enough to say: “God, that was hard! I had to read that sentence 10 times before I could understand it,” was essential. It is true that it has to be worked on by the contemporary reader. I hope that people who see the show will maybe think about putting up with an Austen, because she is so funny. The observations of the ludicrousness of human beings are just exquisite.
What do you think the story itself says about being a woman today in 2019?
It’s a women’s story; it’s about the plight of five daughters and their mother who will be destitute as a direct result of their gender. They have no option to work in order to get themselves out of their destitution. The only option left to them is to marry, which means that they don’t have the luxury of marrying someone they love. They are at the mercy of the gender they were born and their historical situation. Unfortunately, those things are still a problem. One aspect of this adaptation is that it is told by six servants. I was particularly interested in having six working class women as our narrators, because they are the facilitators over the past hundreds of years – ultimately, someone’s gotta clean up! But they are not the stars in Austen’s novels. The servants don’t get a happy ending, they don’t get a love interest or a happy ever after.
Your adaptation features a lesbian love story. Tell us more about that.
From the moment that I read that particular relationship between the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, and her best pal, Charlotte Lucas, I was like: “Oh, Charlotte is in love with Elizabeth!” Elizabeth is, apparently, not the most beautiful of the sisters, but she’s strident, very clever and funny. People fall for her and she quite enjoys flirting. Charlotte, is older, not as attractive, not quite as clever. The pressure is on her even more to marry – she’s like a decrepit 26 or something. There are so many descriptions of the intimacy of their relationship. Charlotte – spoiler alert – marries the most repulsive man in the book. She would never have been able to marry someone she was in love with, living at the time she did. Austen doesn’t say that out right– she couldn’t if she wanted to. Some people are gay now and some of us were gay then and my feeling is that Charlotte is a lesbian.
Are we seeing enough women-loving-women stories on stage?
My issue is that when you do see a queer love story presented in a theatrical format, people say that it’s a gay play. We have the same problem with ethnic diversity where people redefine the play on the basis of a narrative aspect. We do need to see more, we need to work harder and we need to see more different types of life, different types of person being represented on stage, for sure. But that does not mean that you have gay plays and straight plays, heaven forbid.
And karaoke!? What’s that all about?
Because of the preoccupation with match making in the story, so many characters seem to be obsessed with where the next party was coming from, the next ball, and these were the events in Pride And Prejudice where people get paired up for dancing. I was thinking about what the equivalent to these public, musical, emotional interactions might be for us and, for me, it is something like karaoke. It’s a heart of your sleeve demonstration of how you feel, it’s public, it’s exposing, it can be very vulnerable, it can also be very peacocky and strident. It offered all of that emotional range the dances did in the books and naturally the films.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this production?
Audiences should be able to react and feel that they can really laugh and follow a series of compelling, ludicrous, ridiculous love stories. I hope they’ll recognise in these characters the types of people that we really still feel we know today. Austen was so good at recognising what some of the most absurd aspects of humanity were. And I hope that we’ve managed to maintain that.
Pride And Prejudice* (*Soft Of) is on tour now. See below for performance dates. Follow Isobel on Twitter at @isobel_mcarthur.
Wednesday 2 October – Saturday 12 October 2019
northernstage.co.uk / 0191 230 5151
Birmingham Repertory Theatre
Tuesday 15 October – Saturday 2 November 2019
birmingham-rep.co.uk / 0121 236 4455
The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh
Preview: 23 January 2020
Friday 24 January – Saturday 15 February 2020
lyceum.org.uk / 0131 248 4848
Tuesday 25 February – Saturday 29 February 2020
leedsplayhouse.org.uk / 0113 213 7700
Tuesday 10 March – Saturday 14 March 2020
oxfordplayhouse.com / 01865 305305
Nuffield Southampton Theatres
Tuesday 17 – Saturday 28 March 2020
nstheatres.co.uk / 023 8067 1771
Only reading DIVA online? You’re missing out. For more news, reviews and commentary, check out the latest issue. It’s pretty badass, if we do say so ourselves.