Mr. Bennet’s Bride by Emma Wood.
Directed by Aarne Neeme AM. Canberra Repertory Theatre. September 7-23. Bookings: 62751950
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
There is a great sense of fun pervading Canberra Rep’s latest production of Emma Wood’s prequel to Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet’s Bride. It is obvious that playwright Wood has thoroughly immersed herself in Jane Austen’s work and relished imbuing her dialogue and characters with Jane Austen’s perspicacious dialogue and early nineteenth century characters, manners and customs. The actors embrace the silliness and small village nature of Austen’s society with enthusiasm. Director Aarne Neeme deftly introduces moments of awkward silence and comical business and reactions to heighten the hilarity of Mr. Bennet Senior’s frustration, James Bennet’s sullen responses, Sarah Gardiner’s skittishness and Emily Gardiner’s silly giggling. And judging by an almost full house the audience found it all rollicking good fun as their laughter echoed through the auditorium.
The plot is simple enough. As the lights come up on another carefully designed set by Andrew Kay, we discover James (Sean Sadimoen) sleeping behind the settee in view of the audience but not his irate father (Rob De Fries) or his flustered aunt (Liz St Clair Long) and their maid (Sally Rynveld.) Mr Bennet and his sister Mary Ellingworth are awaiting the arrival of Mrs Bowman (Rita Onorato) and her daughter Clara (Cameron Rose) to introduce Clara to James in the hope of creating a romantic attachment that will lead to marriage and an heir to the Bennet fortune and high standing in the cloistered society. Wood carefully charts the expected course of Regency manners and Mr Bennet’s expectations
There are manners to observe and obstacles to overcome such as the birth of a son to ousin Benedict Collins (Terry Johnson) and James’s rebellious reaction to his father’s stern will. But in the end wits and wile win out and James finds his giggling Emily (Stephanie Waldron) whose attorney father (Iain Murray) and equally giggling mother (Kate Harris) wheedle their way into Mr. Bennet’s plan to find his son a wife. Wood has paid allegiance to Jane Austen’s subtly rebellious nature as she probes into motives and superficiality and exposes artifice and covert purpose.
Austen fans are sure to enjoy Mr Bennet’s Bride and those unfamiliar with Pride and Prejudice may enjoy the production on a more superficial level. The nuance is less evident in the straight playing and interpretation. Motive is clear in Wood’s dialogue but the intent behind the artifice and social custom appears less obvious in the playing. Perhaps I would have appreciated a clearer insight into the pressures that determined the behaviour of those characters as they faced parental dictate, class expectation and advancement opportunity. But whether one probes the complexity of human nature or the subtle satire that Wood has gleaned from the original inspiration, audiences are certain to enjoy a night’s entertainment and Wood’s plausible prequel to Jane Austen’s sparkling and gently critical insight.