Next month, it will be 244 years since the birth of English novelist Jane Austen, whose works — wittily but passionately decrying the disempowerment of women — still resonate with an appreciative audience today.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
By Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon
Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
To Dec. 21
Tickets $27-$82 at royalmtc.ca, 204-942-6537, 1-877-446-4500
For proof, note this is the second consecutive year the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre is devoting mainstage space to Austen’s gracious, maddening world.
Autumn 2018 saw a production of her novel Sense and Sensibility adapted by Winnipeg playwright Ellen Peterson.
This year sees a seasonal offering, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, a sequel to Austen’s 1813 work Pride and Prejudice by American playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, fashioning a romantic entanglement for one the most enigmatic of the five Bennet sisters, Mary, played by Ellen Denny.
The common denominator between the two plays is director Krista Jackson, who earlier this year left her position as associate artistic director of Royal MTC, which she held since 2016.
Free Press: Your second Jane Austen-based play at Royal MTC in two years suggests you have an affinity for the author.
Krista Jackson: I think she’s a writer who was really ahead of her time with women characters. She showed really early on in her novels that with women, it doesn’t matter about riches. If you had intelligence and heart, then you’re going to be able to create your future. I think, drawing from that, you got a sense of how women’s survival happened at that time in Regency England.
FP: How is Christmas at Pemberley distinct from Sense and Sensibility?
KJ: It was a really exciting thing to explore (an original adaptation of) Sense and Sensibility because Ellen Peterson adapted it and I was working with her on that. She was able to cull the stories she wanted out of that novel to put into her adaptation. That aspect was really fun.
With this play, these two seriously intelligent American women playwrights have taken the original as a springboard to reunite the Bennet sisters and to continue the story of Lizzie and Darcy and Jane and Bingley and how they are a couple of years later.
There’s a delight in that. We were able to look at their ideas of what happened in the last two years and where is everybody at. It’s really fresh take by these playwrights.
And they’ve chosen Mary, the middle sister, to be the heroine. She had maybe 15 references in the novel. She’s not featured in the novel. She’s like the misunderstood sister. They went: ‘Mary needs a story!’ Because if you look at the things she’s interested in which is music and reading, and we celebrate those things today.
So they lifted her out and are celebrating her, asking: What happens if we put her with somebody very much like her and they fall in love?
The two playwrights were talking about how there is just a lack of good Christmas plays and they came up with this idea and it’s sort of taken North America by storm. Everybody’s doing it and the audiences are loving it.
FP: Judith Bowden’s sets in Sense and Sensibility were clean, bright and modern. But this is a fresh take with different cast and artists. Is it significant that the set designer this time out, Gillian Gallow also did A Christmas Carol for RMTC?
KJ: Yes, the set is very Christmas-y. In the library at Pemberley, Mary has really made it her own, and she’s exploring the traditions of the Christmas tree ahead of her time. The Christmas tree wasn’t a thing in 1814 when the play takes place so we’ve taken liberty.
The playwrights were playing around with that. She has this tree in the middle of the room so that’s a lot of fun. Also we’re really exploring colour. A lot of our inspiration — Gillian Gallow and I — was like sugared fruit for the costumes, so it really has a sense of Christmas pudding, delightful, charming, warm and celebratory in its feel. Sense was very much a clean, crisp sort of look at that world and this is more of a come-into-our-home with us.
FP: A Christmas Carol created a lot of familiarity with Christmas traditions in Victorian England, but it was quite a different affair in the Regency period.
KJ: They played a lot of games in Regency England, so they would do charades and they would have these cards where you would choose a card and then you dress up as a character as entertainment.
There’s also a game called snapdragon in the show — some people might have to Google it at intermission — which involves a flaming bowl of brandy and raisins. And there’s lots of carols in the show.
Paul De Gurse has done the music and it’s wonderful to have a composer working together all through the process with the actors. We sing a lot of Regency England carols and we also have handbells that are both live and recorded. And the pianoforte is a huge part of the show.
FP: It’s nice to see you still have a relationship with RMTC after departing as associate artistic director.
KJ: I will continue to be connected with them. I’m developing a show right now with Vern Thiessen, another adaptation, so I’m working as a dramaturge.
I’m also back to being able to work around the country again. While I was working with Steven, I knew my contract was a three-year contract when I signed it, and I was restricted on how much I could do outside of MTC.
So I’ve got lots of great work coming up all over the country. I’m still going to be based here, but I really want to spread myself a little bit further.
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.