Review of Pride and Prejudice at Hatfield Forest by open-air theatre company Illyria
Georgian England: the world of balls, dinners and scandalous gossip. The world where, at the centre of tonight’s expanding empire, sits the daughter of a country gentleman and a rich, aristocratic landowner.
Award-winning outdoor theatre company Illyria presented Pride and Prejudice at Hatfield Forest last Saturday (September 2), promising a night of whirlwind parties, marriage proposals and, of course, scolding hot tea. The night’s performance promised to transport us to a bygone era where love and societal expectations would clash in the most delightful manner.
Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy stood alone, the only sane people in this sea of madness. Up on the blue-fanned stage, their disdain for each other was clear for all to see. Or was it?
As the performance kicked off, we saw his pride at the downfall of his character and her prejudice as the formidable barrier to her happiness. They were the beacons of sanity amidst the swirling chaos of a world brimming with lust and hidden desires. Any preconceptions about Jane Austen’s works being stuffy costume dramas were shattered as Illyria really did pull out all the stops.
At the 6pm start the sun was starting to set. Families had scattered themselves across the field with chairs, blankets and picnics, excited for the performance. The lake serving as the backdrop created an atmosphere of tranquillity – until the drama on stage took a turn.
In a portrayal less sardonic than that of Keira Knightley in the 2005 film, Nicola Foxfield’s Elizabeth Bennet was more comparable to Jennifer Ehle from the 1995 BBC mini-series. Confident and charming, she wooed the audience with her stubbornness eventually melting into warm and heartfelt love for Mr Darcy, played by Chris Wills.
I had concern about the lack of mics and speakers, but the cast of five projected their voices to the very back, their prim and proper English reaching even the farthest person. The occasional interference from the forests’s geese, echoing the passionate debates of the characters on stage, provided an unintentional yet comical edge, all adding to the outdoor experience.
The second half of the 2.5-hour performance unfolded in the dark, with the illuminated stage creating an ambience befitting Austen’s world.
The talented cast performed multiple roles to keep their circle small and intimate. Rosie Zeidler played three of Lizzie’s sisters (Jane, Lydia and Charlotte), Sarah Pugh gave a cunning portrayal of both Mrs Bennet and Mr Bingley, and Edward Simpson perfected Mr Bennet, Miss Bingley, Sir William Lucas and Lady Catherine.
In the heart of the forest, Illyria’s production provided us with an unforgettable evening. It was a theatrical delight where, in the open air of Essex, we could be transported to the world of romance and the timeless tale of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy.