Preview: Pride and Prejudice

Marie McCarthy tells Andy Murray why it’s time to take Jane Austen outdoors with a production of Pride and Prejudice

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It’s that special time of year when game souls venture outdoors armed with hampers, champers and blankets, determined to soak up a bit of culture. Open air theatre is very vogueish, but Heartbreak Productions certainly has form. For 20 years now it has been staging literary favourites for all-weather audiences. Currently it’s touring a version of Pride and Prejudice, officially a national treasure, and second only to Lord of the Rings in the BBC’s Big Read poll in 2003.

Marie McCarthy, director of the new production, says: “Austen wrote from the heart, and I think that’s why people connect with Pride and Prejudice so much. The great challenge is putting it in the outdoors, and maintaining the focus. It’s about translating and maintaining that. Even though we’re in the great outdoors it’s not about broad brush strokes.”

McCarthy was determined not to lose the characters’ sizzlingly intense inter-relations in the open-air setting. “Throughout the rehearsal period we’ve been saying, what is the truth of this situation? What are the stakes? And the stakes are really high in this world. We take it for granted, but when you meet someone, you don’t know what the rules are. We might kiss them on one cheek, two cheeks – what do we do? Do we shake hands, do we hug? And the rules in this world are really very clear. They’re always in the presence of a family member, a chaperone. They can only touch on the dance-floor, so when they do hold hands, when they do have a moment alone to speak, it’s really meaningful. A kind of charge builds up.”

It’s the sense of universality that has made Pride and Prejudice so very beloved down the centuries. “Even though it’s set within the confines of Georgian England, the concerns and the intentions and the objectives are as true now as they were then. Girl meets boy, boy doesn’t want the girl. Everyone else knows: of course Lizzie and Darcy should be together. But those two don’t know that.”

There’s humour on display too, and a light-hearted framing device to draw audience members into Austen’s world. Adaptor David Kerby-Kendall has said of his script: “I’ve given it the Downton treatment and made it quite contemporary and bitchy.” But McCarthy is adamant that there’s nothing here to offend the famously touchy Austen purists.

“What David has done is heightened some aspects of the novel but essentially the spirit of the piece is there. We haven’t had any complaints so far!”

It’s quite a labyrinthine tale, though, with a number of key characters. Heartbreak’s production has a cast of five, some of whom are playing up to four roles. They’re also required to sing, play instruments and, naturally, dance – all live and out of doors. It’s an exhilarating challenge for those that are up to it.

“The actors have to turn on a sixpence in some places. It’s a very busy show throughout. Focus is really important there, focusing on where you’ve come from and where you’re going to.”
Over the years Heartbreak has built up a loyal fan-base – essential when squaring up to the unpredictable British summertime.

“There’s a dedicated audience who have seen a lot of Heartbreak’s shows throughout the years and love them and come back for more each year. People turn up whatever the weather and they come prepared.

“Obviously it’s great if it’s nice and dry but it really doesn’t matter. There’s a real camaraderie. Because it’s in such beautiful surroundings there’s a great kind of openness, a willingness, in terms of audience and cast: ‘we’re here, this is the story we’re going to tell and – regardless of the weather – here we go!’”

Heartbreak Productions’ Pride and Prejudice, Sheffield Botanical Gardens, 4-7 Aug

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