Two centuries after it was published Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice remains one of the world’s best-loved books.
Following a summer run at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, an adaptation is heading to Twickenham and Richmond this autumn and actress Tafline Steen, who plays Elizabeth Bennet, told us not to expect a dull period piece.
She said: “I think Simon (Reade), the dramatist who has adapted it, has done a wonderful thing.
“Sometimes with period adaptations you get people trying to do very staid ‘this is one scene, make a pretty picture and then do another one’ and it all becomes very stilted.
“He has been, not irreverent, but made it this big rush of one scene tumbling into the next and it has all that wit and life that the novel has, but portrayed on stage.
“It clips along, which is nice. In terms of being faithful to the book, he really has. He has really honoured the text but it is not drab or weirdly over-reverent.”
Felicity Montagu leads the cast as Mrs Bennet alongside Matthew Kelly as her on-stage husband.
She said: “It is very beautiful to look at, there is some very good real acting going on.
“It is not a farce. Mrs Bennet, it’s her real story, so laughs are harder to earn.
“Any laughs come from obviously the situation she is in but I’m hoping you will go away feeling for her as well, rather than just being a ludicrous, laughable figure which Jane Austen in a way is doing, I feel. And I feel that is unjust.”
She added: “It has got so many themes that are relevant today: homelessness, there’s still a class structure in our world, there are still women who are undereducated, women with no rights.
“It is still going on, what Jane Austen was writing about. People were tied into their social backgrounds. They still are, really.”
Even after a career stretching over three decades and roles in hits such as Bridget Jones’s Diary, Mapp and Lucia, the recent Dad’s Army film and Alan Partridge, Montagu still looks for roles that will make her a better actor.
It was that, as well as the chance to work with director Deborah Bruce, which persuaded her to sign on as Mrs Bennet.
She said: “I think Mrs Bennet is just a wonderful role to play. It is an incredible challenge to play and I want to stretch myself.
“Actually coming here Barbara Houseman the voice coach and other people have been absolutely brilliant.
“Even when you get to a certain level in the profession I want to keep moving forward and getting better. I thought doing this would help me get better.”
Montagu credits a letter from visionary director Richard Eyre five years ago, casting her opposite Rowan Atkinson in Simon Gray’s Quartermaine’s Terms, as the turning point in her career, fuelling her desire to always seek challenging work.
She said: “Just working with that sort of calibre of director made me think ‘I need to do more of this. This will make me better’.”
Of course it is not as easy as simply picking the roles and collaborators when you are an actor.
Montagu said: “I think it is impossible for an actor because I don’t think you can choose.
“People only see you for what they want to see you as.
“You are sort of stuck, really, so it is when you get your lucky breaks.
“That was a lucky break with Richard Eyre.
“I had a lucky break with Steve Coogan working on Alan Partridge with Armando Iannucci and Pete Baynham and Chris Morris and all those people. Amazing people.
“You get your lucky breaks but you have to recognise them when they come, which is hard. I haven’t always recognised them.”
Montagu has worked Coogan et al on various Alan Partridge project as long-suffering assistant Lynn since the first series of I’m Alan Partridge in 1997. It is probably her most well-known role and one she said she is always happy to return to.
She said: “I will always be on board with Steve. I saw him the other day and said I was completely on board.”
Pride and Prejudice is at the Churchill Theatre, Twickenham, from Wednesday, September 21, to Saturday, September 24, and Richmond Theatre from November 15 to 19. Go to prideandprejudiceplay.com
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