Wales Millennium Centre

Pride and Prejudice at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that there is no such thing as too many adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. Right?

Pride and Prejudice the play
When I saw that Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre were part of this season’s drama at the Wales Millennium Centre, I was more than a little excited. Jane Eyre can be a bit drab, but has enough of that Brontë high gothic drama. Pride and Prejudice though, is life. I remember watching the 2005 Joe Wright and it filled me with so much joy. I jutted out my jaw, pouted and spoke like a walking thesaurus for weeks after, a la Keira (but more resembling Mr Collins). Controversially, I’ve never seen THAT BBC adaptation – I’ve tried watching it, but it doesn’t have the same sheen as this movie, it looks a bit dour. So to see my favourite of Jane Austen novels adapted for the stage, arguably favourite book – I leapt at the chance.

Fittingly, Simon Reade’s Pride and Prejudice first premiered at the Theatre Royal in Austen’s very own Bath in 2009, arriving in Cardiff via a revival in London’s Open Air Theatre . Reade has done a very good job adapting Pride into a succinct two hours and ten minutes (plus interval). The best parts of Pride and Prejudice are not Lizzie and Mr Darcy, regardless of how much promotional material will try and convince you. Austen gives her entire ensemble of supporting players a fully realised character. Who has time to swoon after Darcy when you’re wincing at Mr Collins or laughing at Mr and Mrs Bennett’s bickering?

Felicity Montagu and Matthew Kelly as Mr and Mrs Bennet

Felicity Montagu and Matthew Kelly as Mr and Mrs Bennet

Max Jones’ set itself is great. A deceptively simple two tier, wrought iron revolving frame which the drama unfurled around. The clever use of space and movement of props felt comfortingly old fashioned. The direction as well, was oddly old fashioned. Not at all naturalistic or subtle, many of the actors moved and shouted as if they were in an 19th century Oscar Wilde adaptation before the invention of microphones. It is almost a criticism, but I thought it worked, intentional or otherwise.

From the actors, Stars in the Eyes legend Matthew Kelly brought some camp to the droll Mr Bennet. Although I had thought it was Bridget’s Mum, turns out Felicity Montagu is not whom I thought, but a pleasant surprise nonetheless (Perpetua from Bridget Jones’ Diary to big bosomed Sue in Nighty Night). Felicity Montagu made a wonderful, shrieking Mrs Bennet (whose nerves you really do believe get the better of her). The rest of the cast was fine, competent. I didn’t much like the Lizzie or Mr Darcy – as Lizzie, Tafline Steen was enthusiastic but shouted too many of her line; Benjamin Dilloway was too haughty a Darcy to really believe the romance. Their eventual kiss had a delayed and less than enthused whoop from the audience. Casting wise, it was also good to see ‘colourblind casting’ in such a touring production. After the hoohah about black Hermione, it was good to not hear people moaning about the author’s intent. Jane Austen probably hadn’t imagine that 200 years later, they’d be making yet another adaptation of Pride, so who can say what her intent would be.

Tafline Stine and Benjamin Dilloway as Elizabeth Benney and Mr Darcy Pride and Prejudice

Tafline Stine and Benjamin Dilloway as Elizabeth Benney and Mr Darcy

All In all, I didn’t dislike the evening and I would recommend it to Austen fans and cynics. I have enough residual interest in Pride and Prejudice to remain engaged throughout this adaption. It was mostly well acted, well adapted and competently staged, but for Austen with such a bright, vivid wit, this production was ever so slightly dull. Not up there with the 1995 or 2005 screen adaptations, but not down there with that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies disaster either.

So tonight Matthew, I’m going to be… underwhelmed by this Pride and Prejudice adaptation.

Pride and Prejudice is at Wales Millennium Centre until February 25th.

All pics pinched from the Pride and Prejudice the play website.

..and lastly. Just cos.

Colin Firth Wet Shirt Mr Darcy Pride and Prejudice

Mr Darcy in all his wet shirt glory.

La Bohème & Le Vin Herbé at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Two Nights at the Opera: an accidental double bill.

Firstly, snaps to Welsh National Opera for offering £5 tickets to under-30s. Other institutions seem to think that once you’ve turned 26 – you’re suddenly in a position where you can afford to go from £5 to £25 average for tickets. (LOOKING AT YOU NATIONAL THEATRE). At 26 I was just finishing Uni, spending too much money on rent and sadly, culture wasn’t a priority. If the idea of these youth-subsidised tickets is to encourage new generations to patron the theatre, it would be better applied to 25-30 year olds. Once you really appreciate the benefit of an evening not spent drunk, theatre becomes so much more enticing. So kudos to WNO, for allowing pretentious, middle class millennials a cheap night at the opera. Thanks to some unfortunate double booking, I had to reschedule my nice Saturday evening La Bohème performance to a Wednesday night, with Le Vin Herbé Thursday.

La Bohème

Everyone with a passing interest in musical theatre should be aware of La Bohème – it shares basic plot elements with Jonathan Larson’s Rent (also on its way to WMC in April). Baz Luhrmann also directed this very bohemian opera in 1990 for Opera Australia that almost certainly inspired his own Moulin Rouge a decade later. When Rodolfo and Mimi are scuttling around looking for her key on the apartment floor in the moonlight – I had Light my Candle stuck in my head instead of Puccini’s rousing score.

The scene at Cafe Momus.

The scene at Cafe Momus.

It was a competent revival of Annabel Arden’s take on the Puccini piece, originally staged for the WNO in 2012. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ design was stark and cold. There was no rose tinting of the poverty of the bohemian quartet, highlighting the warmth and exuberance in the jolly second act jaunt to Café Momus. Of the main players, Gary Griffiths and Lauren Fagan’s Marcello and Musetto made a bigger impression than Rodolfo and Mimi. While her arias were delivered well, Marina Costa-Jackson presence is too strong to be convincingly dying of tuberculosis.

La Boheme WNO Wales Millennium Centre

Much has been said in the press about Manlio Benzi’s conducting, being a little unruly. I don’t confess to being familiar enough with Opera to really notice either way. I’m not entirely convinced that La Bohème itself really deserves it place in the revered opera canon. Iconic story aside, I didn’t really find any of the music that memorable. The most resonating part of the whole two hours was Mimi’s spot lit corpse, harshly spot lit, alone on the stage. Give me Rent any day.

Star crossed lovers Rodolfo (Dominick Chenes) and Mimi (Marina Costa Jackson) in WNO's La Bohème.

Star crossed lovers Rodolfo (Dominick Chenes) and Mimi (Marina Costa Jackson) in WNO’s La Bohème.

Le Vin Herbé

If La Bohème is possibly staged a bit too often, then Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbé is definitely not stage often enough. Written between 1938-41, although it could easily be much more contemporary than that. Based on the same tale as Richard Wagner’s better-known take on the Tristan and Iseult story, but the similarities end there. This piece is a small and intimate, more oratorio than opera. Whether through budgetary constraint or artistic vision, this WNO revival has a stark staging. A bridge, with steps on either side, dominates the bare, black stage, with the few musicians assembled in front. This places the music and the performers at the forefront.

WNO's bare staging of Frank Martin's Le Vin Herbé.

WNO’s bare staging of Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbé.

The story itself is as old as time itself, the ill-fated lovers with tragic ends. The Vin herbé of the title is the love potion that sets the tragedy in motion. The libretto is sung mostly by the chorus – and in English. I’m in two minds about an English libretto, at once easy to just listen and not be distracted reading the surtitles. It can also sound clunky, with clichéd phrasing becoming more apparent when you understand the language.

Tom Randle and Caitlin Hulcup as the star crossed Tristan and Iseult in Le Vin Herbé

Tom Randle and Caitlin Hulcup as the ill fated Tristan and Iseult in Le Vin Herbé

Le Vin Herbé was a wonderful listen, particularly Caitlin Hulcup’s Irish princess Iseult whose strong mezzo range handled the challenging role with ease. Her entrance astride the bridge, in contrast to the black clad cast. Conducting Martin’s dramatic composition was James Southall who did a brilliantly energetic job. There were also moments of beauty in April Dalton’s simple staging and set design. A huge white sheet dropped from above stage at a pertinent moment. The large chorus laying candles at Iseult’s body, one by one – it was moving stuff.

Caitlin Hulcup's invigorating Iseult as the tragedy builds.

Caitlin Hulcup’s invigorating performance as Iseult as the tragedy builds.

I’d assumed that this was going to be a more intimate production, having read about previous stagings. I wondered how they were going to adapt Martin’s intimate oratorio for the large Donald Gordon auditorium, made even more massive by the bare staging. The answer was by expanding the chorus. I’m not entirely convinced by this, there were at times too many bodies on the stage, or unnecessarily wandering through the audience (not singing, so I didn’t glean the intentions). It made the scene changes a little overlong in a concise, interval-less production. That said, it was a brave choice for WNO to stage such an unknown piece, and it seemed to sell reasonably well for a Thursday night performance. If the strong reviews from National press are anything to go by, Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbé will deservedly emerge from the obscure. It was a real treat of an evening.

So a double bill of opera turned into a great showcase for Welsh National Opera, with two very different productions and two starkly different viewpoints on them.

La Bohème is touring until 28th April, Le Vin Herbé is touring until the 25th April. For more info, go to the Welsh National Opera website.