Two Bit take on Austen

An introduction from the Director:

As a director I love a challenge, and discovering a credible and engaging way to bring a novel to the stage is always one of those.  Add into the mix some of the most famous characters in English Literature, an iconic television incarnation and a cast of only two actors, and the Two Bit Classics task was looking more challenging than most.  But actually, these seeming-hurdles are what is going to make this particular adaptation work.  The characters are famous because they are brilliantly observed, high definition and beautifully nuanced (even Caroline Bingley has her weak spot).  The pervasiveness of the TV and film versions drives a theatrical production back to the words, rather than focussing on production design.  And having two actors play all the parts is a bold stroke that could only work in a theatre, lifting the production effortlessly out of naturalism and into a shared act of imagination between actors and audience.  Characters are able to address the audience directly, wonderfully mimicking the intimate quality of Jane Austen’s writing.   

It’s exciting to be actively working with Austen’s language, finding out how it functions, rather than just sitting back and reading.  I hope this excitement and freshness conveys itself to you!

Some notes from the Writer

On Austen’s characters:

In a now famous letter to her nephew (who was also a writer) Austen wrote,

What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of Variety and Glow? How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?

But Austen’s genius is capturing the spirit in the detail. She writes in this great ‘sweet-spot’ on the spectrum between ‘larger than life’ and ‘people like us’. I think this is why we tell her stories over and over again: on film, television and stage; in period costume, modern settings and with different endings. It’s why there are so many prequels and sequels and pieces of fan fiction, why so many episodes of ‘The Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ generated over 2 million views on You Tube. Her characters fascinate us because they are these vivid archetypes who still feel like somebody we might have as a friend or a member of our family.

Of course, the main reason I wanted to create a stage version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ for two actors was because her characters fascinate me, too. They are strong and spirited enough to strike an audience immediately; which means that they are instantly recognisable even when the actor is switching between roles. Yet they have also been written with all this depth and detail which allows the audience to engage with them over the whole performance. I am after staging the ‘sweet-spot’, if you like: exploring the intersection between the ‘Variety and Glow’ - which comes from breathing life into these great archetypes that audiences instantly recognise - and the fine brushwork, the detail and humanity that engages an audience with the truth of what is happening in front of them.

This is also why I’ve kept a blend of dialogue and third person narration in the script. While Austen appears to write as an impartial and omniscient voice, her narration reads more as a blend of perspectives. She very rarely writes in ‘wide-shot’ but is switching ‘close-ups’ all the time; as the events of the novel un-fold, they are filtered through different characters’ sense of the truth. Increasingly it is Lizzy’s ‘truth’ that we encounter but this is often contrasted with other characters’ perspectives (e.g. Mrs Bennet’s or Jane’s). It seemed natural to put these perspectives into the mouths of the characters themselves and this act of ‘narrating themselves’ hopefully means that each character grows a personal relationship with the audience during the course of the play.

On the journey of the play:

Austen’s famous wit is at its most incisive in these moments of narration; in the characters’ perceptions of themselves and others and in how they and their actions are perceived in turn. What emerges is not only a real sense of who these people are but a sense of who they think they are - and there’s very often a real gap between the two.
Abi drew my attention early on in the writing process, to the point in the novel where Lizzy says ‘Till this moment, I never knew myself’. At this moment Darcy’s letter has caused her to view the world and herself in a completely different way. I think that all the characters go through significant changes in the novel, though they are not always able to articulate those changes and are sometimes not even self-aware enough to know that they have happened. In many ways it feels as if it’s a story about the journey towards self-knowledge. We want our audience to go on the journey with the characters in the same way that a reader of the novel would: sometimes you’re realising stuff ahead of them and sometimes only at the moment they do.

On using two actors:

There seemed to be something special about going on this journey with just two actors. At its heart of course, Pride and Prejudice is a love story, so there was a pleasing symmetry in having the actors playing Darcy and Elizabeth and all of the other characters that surround their coming together. But there are so many other twosomes in the novel as well: Mr and Mrs Bennet, Jane and Bingley, Lizzy and Jane, Kitty and Lydia, Lydia and Wickham, Mr Collins and Charlotte Lucas…and in each two, something about one character sheds light on another and vice versa so you get this wonderful layering of perspectives. Then at the heart of that, you have Darcy and Lizzy coming together and seeing each other and themselves properly for the first time.
I really want to get the sense that, at the end of the play, we are looking at two people who are properly face to face for the first time; that once the whirligig of the events of the story and all the character switching comes to an end, you are left with the sense that there are two people joined together in a moment of truth.