By LANA MICHELIN
It’s time for Elizabeth Bennet to take another turn around the dance floor with Mr. Darcy.
The improbable but enduring romance between a strong-minded country gentleman’s daughter and a status-conscious man of means will play out again when the RDC Theatre Studies production of Pride and Prejudice opens on Thursday, Feb. 5, at the RDC Arts Centre.
In just over two hundred years since the story was first published in 1813, the book by Jane Austen has become one of the most popular in English literature — despite some revisionist interpretations.
The novel of manners was always well liked, but got out of step with prevailing views during the rise of the women’s rights movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The very idea of girls waiting around for suitors to call and daughters being cast as marriage bait before men of large fortune became abhorrent notions.
But as the nature of feminism has evolved, Pride and Prejudice has experienced a rebirth across North America — no doubt stirred by the 1995 dramatization by BBC-TV and a 2005 feature film starring Kiera Knightly. (The novel came in second, behind The Lord of the Rings in a 2003 U.K.’s Best-Loved Book poll done by the BBC. It also ranked first out of 101 best books in a 2008 Australian survey.)
Katie Walker, an RDC Theatre Studies student examining societal implications of Austen’s story, adapted for the stage by Jon Jory, believes today’s women will find much to admire about Elizabeth Bennet. Austen’s heroine has intellect, wit and the strength to not conform to certain societal expectations.
After all, Lizzie refuses to wed her boring clergyman cousin, Mr. Collins, preferring to hold out for someone she can converse with and respect, said Walker.
She also likes that Austen never dwelt on Elizabeth’s physical attributes in the book.
While actresses who have played the character on movie or TV screens have always been good looking, in the Hollywood tradition, Lizzie is only generally described as “handsome” in the novel. She’s not the “beauty” of the Bennet clan — a distinction belonging to her eldest sister, Jane.
Walker said when Mr. Darcy falls for Elizabeth, we understand that he adores her whip-smart personality as well as her “fine eyes.”
Director Lynda Adams admitted she grew up during the Betty Friedan/Germaine Greer generation as more of an admirer of can-do Nancy Drew than the suitor-besotted Bennet girls.
“In some ways, this (story) is new for me because I’ve never been a fan.”
But Adams admitted she began seeing things — including the relevance of marriage in the 21st century — differently last fall, when her daughter wed, in her 40s, a man she’d been with for the past 19 years.
“She was so happy he asked her,” recalled Adams, “and I was thrilled for her.”
The play’s director believes Pride and Prejudice remains current because “everyone still searches for Mr. or Mrs. Right.”
Also, Elizabeth Bennet is a modern woman in many ways: She knows her own mind, is willing to question authority and conventions when needed, shows herself as an independent thinker — and is funny, said Adams.
Even some male characters in the book are shown to be remarkably progressive, for the times.
RDC student Evan Macleod, who’s assisting the vocal coach, appreciates that Lizzie’s father, Mr. Bennet, puts his daughter’s happiness above financial considerations, and that Mr. Darcy accepts that a wife can have her own views.
As a young person who’s navigating interpersonal relationships in a century with hardly any courtship rules, Macleod feels the Austen story is absorbing because characters like Elizabeth and Darcy — even within the strict confines of Regency romance — stand up for the right to love whom they choose.
“That’s what makes the story so timeless.”
The 14 second-year actors in the cast are learning about the early 1800s, including how to pull off proper English accents and how to dance a reel and quadrille.
Jory has stuck very close to the book in his adaptation — all but 18 lines in the play are from the novel, said Adams, who loves the rich language in the script. “The writing is beautiful,” she said, which is one of the reasons Pride and Prejudice remains popular two centuries after being written.
While Shakespeare is also praised for his use of language, one doesn’t see a young person become as engrossed in Hamlet, for example, as the story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, said Adams, with a chuckle.
“Can you imagine? There’s not much else that has pulled people in like this,” added Adams, who hopes the play will appeal to Austen fans as well as people who may not yet be familiar with the story.
“I’d like people to find whatever resonates with them.”
Tickets to the 7:30 p.m. shows (1 p.m. matinees on Feb. 7 and 14) are $26.80 ($21.80 students/seniors) from the Black Knight Ticket Centre.