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Susannah Tresilian, director of Pride and Prejudice, talks about working with Sara Pascoe and bringing to the stage Jane Austen's famous novel.
Q: How did this new version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice come about?
Two years ago I directed a play at Nottingham Playhouse called Posh by Laura Wade. On many levels it was brilliant and a success, but it was also 12 men on a stage and just two women. I made sure that the creative team was entirely female to balance that out. Even so when we were looking for my next play we all knew it was going to be a play that would look at women. We’ve been looking for a long time. Then Giles Croft (Nottingham Playhouse Artistic Director) phoned up and said, ‘I think I’ve got it – how about Pride and Prejudice?’. My first thought ‘give me this play, it’s an absolute gift, it’s one of the greatest love stories in British literature. In literature, full stop.
Q: What happened next?
I started looking at versions of it and found to my dismay that there were only adaptations written by men. I knew instinctively that I wanted this to be written by a woman, to be channelling Jane Austen’s spirit and to be very, very funny.
Q: How did comedian Sara Pascoe get involved?
I’ve worked with Sara before and who, apart from being one of the funniest comics on the circuit, is one of the cleverest people I know. We worked on a play called The Endings which started off as just an excerpt in a festival creating plays that were gender neutral - that had characters with no gender assigned to them and that directors could then play around with. That worked very well, then we did the full play some years ago. So I brought Sara on board Pride and Prejudice and was completely thrilled of course when she said yes.
Q: Did she have reservations about ‘adapting’ Jane Austen?
We spoke it a lot about how to adapt a book like that. We both agreed we were adapting it in part for Jane Austen, certainly with her spirit in mind. We knew we were adapting for people who love Pride and Prejudice and who love Jane Austen. But we were also very much writing for people who might otherwise have thought, ‘Jane Austen, that’s not for me’. But if you go back to the original book, it’s very different to what we are frequently shown on stage and particularly the screen. So we wanted to move away from the stereotypes and go back to that biting wit of hers and the characters.
Q: Will Jane be spinning in her grave over this new play?
I hope not. We are doing this so clearly with her spirit in mind. I really feel like I got to know her a little bit better, as a real person. Not as a figure or a literary genius - which of course she is - but as a young woman who died young, had an amazing relationship with her sister and fell in love as well as having stories and histories that didn’t work out.
Q: What if Austen fans don’t like it?
In the famous words of Taylor Swift, “Haters are gonna hate”. But we tell the story of Pride and Prejudice, there is everything in it. Sara has done an incredible job of condensing it into a two hour play. She is really, really loyal to the book. The actors will be wearing Regency costume but, that said, there’s another side that’s an important part for people who might otherwise not come to it.
Q: Aren’t there flashes of modern life interspersed throughout the play?
Yes, the purpose they serve is essentially to have the kind of conversations that Sarah and I had while working on the play. It’s like a theatrical pause button where we stop and go okay, and say, ‘hang on a second what’s happening here?’ We can fast forward a lot of those questions that make it difficult as a modern woman to approach Pride and Prejudice. Our version is traditional and modern at the same time. You get the best of both worlds.
Q: How did Emmy the Great come to write the score?
We knew we wanted there to be music and song, and I wanted that to be quite cool. Some of Emmy’s music is Regency inspired and she’s done a massive amount of research into forgotten women composers of the time of which there are hundreds. She has written a couple of songs specifically for the play so again there’s a modern twist to it.
Q: What about D’Arcy’s wet shirt scene made famous in the BBC-TV adaptation?
I re-read Pride and Prejudice when they asked me to do it and waited for the moment he came out of the lake, got past that moment and went, ‘oh my god it’s not in the book’.
Pride and Prejudice is here at York Theatre Royal from Wed 4 - Sat 14 October. Book your tickets here.