Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Mr Bennet’s Bride by Emma Wood. Directed by Aarne Neeme. Canberra Repertory Society, Canberra REP Theatre. Sept 7-23. Reviewed by Alanna Maclean

Sean Sadimoen (James Bennet) and Stephanie Waldron (Emily Gardiner).Photo: Karina Hudson


EMMA Wood’s Mr Bennet’s Bride makes a splendid prequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

It explains how the parents of the Bennet girls, so seemingly uncomfortably matched in the novel, came to be married. And it’s a cautionary tale, given a lively and perceptive production by director Aarne Neeme, well supported by Anna Senior’s costumes,Mike Moloney’s lighting and an economical revolving set from Andrew Kay.

Here are all the threads that lead to the  novel. Young James Bennet (Sean Sadimoen) is too absorbed in reading to consider marriage. Father Robert (Robert de Fries) is much more conscious of the fact that the Longbourn estate is entailed to male descendants.

The Collins family has just produced  such a descendant and gloriously obnoxious father Benedict Collins (Terry Johnson) is wasting no time in boasting of the infant’s health. Robert’s wife having died giving birth to James and Robert not remarrying means much depends on James’ choice of a bride. Robert and his widowed sister Mary Ellingworth (Liz St Clair Long) despair of James’ capacity to see this.

James turns down the not very interested Clara (Cameron Rose) who is being towed round by her hopeful mother (Rina Onorato) (two short insightful performances here) but is finally gobsmacked by the vivacity of Emily Gardiner (Stephanie Waldron).

Who is much more interested in the dresses and the carry on that a wedding will entail. James’ realisation of her character and his future is a moment done without words but played revealingly by Sadimoen.

Of course there will be 5 daughters and no sons. But, given the advantageous marriages of the two eldest, there will be compensations for the eventual loss of Longbourn. The audience comes in with that foreknowledge if they have read Pride and Prejudice.

And the play will more than satisfy those readers. It’s funny and moving, it understands the Austen idiom and it does justice to those characters who will continue on into the novel.

There are particularly lovely performances from De Fries as Robert, troubled for his son’s future and still mourning for that son’s mother, St Clair Long  as the warm and supportive Maria Ellingworth,  Sally Rynveld as the sensible housekeeper Mrs Graves, and Waldron as the woman who will become the exasperating mother of the five Bennet girls. Iain Murray as her manipulative father George and Kate Harris as her giggling mother Sarah shows clearly the power of inheritance.

Austen is a hard act to follow (or to precede) but Emma Wood’s version of the Bennets’ wooing has an emotional and verbal accuracy about it that is highly convincing and very enjoyable.