I have not always been a Jane Austen fan. When I was young, I had some difficulty understanding irony, cutting politeness, and the dry humour of understatement, so I think my early attempts to read Pride and Prejudice and Emma probably left me missing most of the point. A performance of Pride and Prejudice at Red Deer College a few years ago, some Austenophile friends who shared movie versions of Pride and Prejudice and of Lost in Austen, and the PD James mystery novel Death Comes to Pemberley have given me a better appreciation of the comedy of manners style and the story of the Bennet sisters.
The current Citadel Theatre production of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, by Lauren Gunderson and Margaret Melcon, directed by Nancy Macalear, is a lot of fun, given that I already knew the basics of the story and had wondered what happened afterwards, especially to the younger Bennet sisters. I don’t think it would have been quite as amusing if I didn’t already know the characters. This play takes place a couple of years after the ending of Pride and Prejudice, with Jane (Emma Lalshram) and Elizabeth (Allison Edwards-Crewe) happily married to Mr Bingley (Cameron Kneteman) and Mr Darcy (Mat Hulshof), Lydia (Emma Houghton) not so happily married to Mr Wickham, Kitty off in London with some aunts and uncles and not part of this story, and Mary — middle sister Mary (Mikaela Davies), the bookish and musical one who kept butting into conversations with awkward pronouncements about facts, had at first enjoyed having her sisters away from home, because she could play the piano and read as much as she wanted, but had gradually become dissatisfied and restless, realizing that she would be expected to remain at home caring for her aging parents until they died, and then would lose her home as some distant male relative would inherit the estate. One of the things that pleasantly surprised me about the story in this play was that the girls’ parents, Mr and Mrs Bennet, were not really part of it, but they were not dead either. The grown sisters manage their own lives and each other’s, acknowledging their parents’ flaws affectionately and finding their own solutions. I enjoyed seeing how the sisters still knew exactly how to irritate each other, and at the same time worried about each other and had fun together. Like the Bennet sisters, I too have four siblings whom I don’t see very often, and this felt realistic to me.
Mary and Lydia are the interesting ones in this play – Lydia’s outrageousness made me laugh and wince and feel sorry for her, and Mary’s isolation and longing for study, travel, and kindred minds made it easy for me to identify with her.
The cast of characters was rounded out with Anne de Bourgh (Gianna Vacirca), a canonical status-conscious cousin and former fiancee of Fitzwilliam Darcy, and added character Arthur de Bourgh (Umed Amin), Anne’s own cousin who has just inherited Anne’s home Rosings after the death of her mother the awful Lady Catherine.
I was a little disappointed in the portrayal of Elizabeth and Darcy, because the conflicts between her snarkiness and his shyness-coming-across-as-rude were the most interesting feature of the original book/movies/play. Elizabeth can still be a bit sarcastic, but she and Darcy seem almost boringly in tune with each other (except about one item of household decor). In a couple of charming scenes, Mat Hulshof’s Darcy shares his own muddled romantic history with the even more awkward Arthur and gives him useful advice – while Bingley’s more generic courting advice doesn’t fit at all.
I enjoyed the bits where one character complains about feeling trapped, and another character calls him or her on it, pointing out the existence of choices – especially when Arthur is griping about the burdens of inherited estate and familial expectations and Mary points out that his situation actually has much more flexibility than her own, the female side of property-entailment.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley continues until December 9th in the Shoctor Theatre, meaning that it overlaps with Christmas Carol in the Maclab downstairs.