Isobel McArthur loves Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice so much that she's made up a play about it, with just a few teeny, tiny tweaks. Like telling it from the servants' perspective. And using an all-female cast of just six. Oh and serving it up with a big side of 20th century pop bangers. I spoke to Isobel, who as well as writing Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of) also plays the roles of Mr Darcy, Mrs Bennet *and* a servant. Easy, right?
I seem to remember rather more than six characters in Pride and Prejudice, how do you go about retelling the story with such a small cast?
We all play multiple roles, taking on 23 characters in total. Each member of the cast plays a servant, narrating the story and guiding the audience with insights from their household. The three parts I'm taking on is at the lower end of the spectrum relative to other members of the cast. One actor plays five different characters.
That sounds like a bit of a head fork, do you ever get mixed up?
It hasn’t happened yet, but never say never! Working out the script was actually the most confusing bit. There were colour-coded pens and huge amounts of going back to the drawing board. I'd think I'd nailed it then reach the latter parts of the text and realise two characters played by the same actor would have to somehow fall in love with each other unless I had a re-think. But I got there.
Sticking with head forks, what are the challenges of playing a man?
The only challenge is playing an incredibly rich, handsome, tall, man who is entitled to the point of arrogance. Most young female performers don't have that kind of ego engendered in them, so it’s a question of giving yourself permission to take up the space. And I would recommend it to anyone. It’s eye-openingly brilliant when you realise so much of the apologising you do is a direct result of your gender. And you can use some of that entitlement in your everyday life. If you’re feeling vulnerable, it’s useful to draw on a confidence that maybe isn’t normally yours. Although Mr Darcy is pretty arrogant, so hopefully I’m not characterising too much.
The play has a strong pop soundtrack and lots of karaoke moments. When was the last time you were in a karaoke bar?
Too long ago, because I can’t remember. The cast keep saying we need to go out together. As a social phenomenon, karaoke is amazing. It's a space where your ability to do a thing counts for nothing, instead your willingness to commit and passion are the only yardsticks for quality. It’s also accessible. There are so many forms of entertainment that exclude people but karaoke is not one of them. It’s inclusive.
What’s your go to karaoke song?
Son of a Preacher Man. I deliver in enthusiasm what I lack in musicality.
Do you want to go out for karaoke?
Yes please! Where shall we go?
I’ve been to Karaoke Box on Broad Street a fair bit and it’s just over the road from The Rep… Do you know Birmingham well?
I'm afraid not. I’ve been for the odd audition and that’s it. So we’re excited to get to know it better! We’re there for three weeks. I get the sense it’s going to embody a lot of the values that we bring from Glasgow. Your city has a generous, funny, front-footed attitude and these are inherently Glaswegian things as well.
Agreed. And if you could go for a drink with Jane Austen, what would you ask her?
Well firstly, she wouldn’t be allowed. You’d have to sneak her in with a bloke or something. And she wouldn’t be able to discuss her novels, as she wasn’t allowed to publish under her own name.
Most people are obsessed with whether she ever fell in love, whether she wanted to marry and whether she died a virgin. Which is highly unlikely. And there’s a whole theory that she was a lesbian as well.
It might sound a bit hippy dippy but I do feel a fundamental, heartfelt connection with this woman, across 200 years. I’d probably weep in her arms and tell her I love her. A couple of people have said they think she would approve of this show and I find that very moving. I do feel that after sitting with the novel so intensely over such a long time, I’m essentially communing with the spirit of Jane Austen every single day.
How do you go about tackling the heavier issues in Pride and Prejudice?
Well here’s the thing, there’s this perceived notion — that I think is utter nonsense — that if a thing is political, it has to be really dull and painful. As far as I’m concerned, this story is entertaining and joyful. And inherently political — because we’re an all-female cast, producing a work about six women, written by a woman. And all the class issues that they’re up against. These women were keeping households going so that someone like Jane Austen could write a book like Pride and Prejudice. If you’re creating a novel or a concerto, someone’s still got to clean up. This is the story of those women, a vital story that we don’t normally get to hear.
See Pride and Prejudice * (*Sort Of) at The Rep from tonight until Nov 2.