Issue 10: Celebrating Austen's humour

DANIEL WIDDOWSON DISCUSSES THE HUMOUR OF PRIDE & PREJUDICE AND THE JOY OF ADAPTING IT FOR THE STAGE.

If you’re a fan of the 90s television show Seinfeld, then you no doubt remember the all famous line, “These pretzels are making me thirsty.” The humour behind this phrase was the thousands of different ways in which a single line could be delivered. Similarly, a film scene that would ordinarily be quite dramatic can be turned farcical through music alone, or perhaps an obscure camera angle. So when Salt House Theatre Company decided to create a comical adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, we knew delivery would be key.

It wasn’t even a year ago when my friend challenged me to read Pride & PrejudiceBut this wasn’t a standard challenge...it happened to be live on-air, and put to me by my co-host on breakfast radio in Sydney. I instantly refused and was bombarded by hundreds of disgruntled Austen fans taking to the phones and email. I soon realised that regardless of whether I enjoyed reading the book or not, this was great on-air content!

Whatever it was that had subconsciously urged me away from Austen’s writings cannot be named. Perhaps it is best put down as a prejudgment of her work on my part, or a prideful character that was determined not to be proven wrong when speaking ill of her literature. Thankfully the challenge was accepted, and within a few months I had read the work several times. I watched television series, films, and Youtube fan parodies. Jane Austen’s remarkable sense of humour had captured me.

Perhaps my expectations were preparing me for a dull nineteenth-century romance novel. The one in which girl meets boy, they fall in love, problem arises, problem becomes seemingly impossible to resolve, then suddenly the problem is resolved, and girl marries boy. No - I soon learned that this is not the way Jane approached her stories. She wrote timely social commentaries, controversial and multi-layered tales of politics and discernment, all of them fuelled with a wonderfully crafted comedic edge.

Pride & Prejudice - Salt House Theatre Company. Credit: Noel Fisher

Pride & Prejudice - Salt House Theatre Company. Credit: Noel Fisher

Several stage adaptations of Pride & Prejudice are available today. Some balance romance and comedy evenly, others tend to favour the romance. I cannot say, however, that there exists a stage play where humour holds the favoured half. This was the task of Salt House Theatre Company - to highlight the humour and celebrate the absurd whilst not detracting from the romance. This required a team of creative practitioners who could bring the eye of a romantic precisionist and simultaneously focus on the comedic elements.

It wasn’t until we reached draft number nine that the production was ready for the stage. A cast and crew of 31 actors, technicians, managers, and coordinators sat backstage at The Art House in Wyong, NSW, Australia. We second guessed ourselves - would this actually work? Considering the large number of Austen fans who had travelled interstate to see this production, there was a possibility the purists would dislike the playfulness our adaptation presented. But the curtain went up none the less.

Pride & Prejudice - Salt House Theatre Company. Credit: Noel Fisher

Pride & Prejudice - Salt House Theatre Company. Credit: Noel Fisher

It didn’t take long to gauge the response. As Mrs Bennet tottered across the stage in her frantic and flustered fashion, the audience roared. Whoops, cackles, and embarrassing snorts were graciously received and valued by the backstage team. It gave the onstage team the confidence needed to launch wholeheartedly into what turned out to be a fantastic night. The show almost sold out the following evening, the script was registered with the Australian Writers’ Guild, and the book was published just weeks later.

The success of this stage production is a credit to the humour in Austen’s writing two hundred years ago. It is also a credit to all the creatives who have adapted her work over those years, assisting fans to familiarise themselves with the characters and content of the tale. It is a credit to the fans of Austen who embrace new adaptations and enjoy the varying emphases producers choose to explore. It is a credit to the hard work of a wonderful cast and crew.

Wherever you are as you read this article, I hope Salt House Theatre Company’s adaptation of Pride & Prejudice will come to your local theatre soon.

© Daniel Widdowson, Artistic Director of Salt House Theatre Company and Jane Austen Literacy Foundation Ambassador. Daniel has been a finalist for Young Australian of the Year and the Young Australian Playwrights award. He is the recipient of a Collins Booksellers Arts award.

And now, a word from our Founder and Chair, Caroline Jane Knight...

I am invited to all sorts of Jane Austen events and, sadly, due to a busy schedule and Melbourne location, I am not able to attend as many as I would like. Great Aunt Jane is not as widely celebrated in Australia as she is in the UK or North America, so I was very intrigued when I heard a theatre company from Wyong, an hour north of Sydney, were rehearsing a brand new stage adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. I didn’t hesitate to accept Dan’s invitation to attend the opening night. Wyong is not known for its love of classical literature and I was beyond curious – what would a young regional theatre company in Australia do to Jane’s most popular novel – Dan said he had written it as a comedy!

As I made the six-hour door-to-door journey, I did wonder if I had made a mistake – it was a long way to go for an amateur theatre production. But I was not disappointed. I had a wonderful time in the hours before the production meeting the cast and crew backstage – a bright, enthusiastic and talented group of (mostly) young actors, some making their stage debut. From the moment the curtain rose, I was entertained. It was funny and joyful with contemporary notes but lost nothing of the iconic love story – the young actors playing Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet were a particular stand out, against an otherwise highly talented cast. Dan’s comedic portrayal of Mr Collins was hilarious and the audience left in high spirits. I enjoyed the show so much, I stayed to watch again the next evening!

The Salt House Theatre’s production of Pride & Prejudice is not for the purists – it is for those who love to see Jane’s work interpreted in different ways for different audiences.

I am delighted to welcome Daniel Widdowson as an Ambassador for the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation.  The Salt House Theatre Company have already raised enough money to fund half a library for a remote Indigenous community here in Australia, and have plans to raise the other half.

Daniel has also generously pledged any proceeds that may be earned in the future from the script of his production of Pride & Prejudice to the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. The script can be accessed via Australian Writers’ Guild or through Vivid Publishing (click on the link below).

 
 

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Image credit:  Matthew Gilzean