I come from a generation that very firmly correlates Sunday teatime with the BBC’s classic serial which brought the works of Dickens, Austen, Eliot and other writers of the era into our homes. They have, of course, long since been replaced by more nuanced and expensive productions (often on Sunday nights) but it’s those early evening adaptations which glow with nostalgia. So, it seemed entirely appropriate that late afternoon yesterday should form the backdrop to my viewing of Being Mr Wickham a solo show about the ne’er do well (it’s a bit over the top to brand him as an out and out villain) of Pride And Prejudice. In case you need a gentle reminder he’s the one who threatens to bring scandal crashing down on the Bennet household by eloping with flighty Lydia and is run to ground by hero Mr Darcy.
The interesting premise is that this once dashing young man has survived into late middle age (we meet him as he turns 60) when the lightness and freedom of the Regency era has given way to the highly orthodox and rather more boring days of Victorian England. He is still with Lydia and has two grown up children who in Absolutely Fabulous mode have rebelled against their own parents by becoming conventionally respectable. But he still has an eye for the ladies and is excited at the prospect of another elopement which s happening across the street from where he lives. In between making dashes for the window to get the latest updates he tells us about his years growing up with the Darcy family and relates what has taken place since Austen’s novel ended. The monologue is therefore both a prequel and sequel to Pride And Prejudice or, at least George Wickham’s part in it; in many ways it is the same trick as Stoppard’s Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead even if the form it takes is quite different.
Wickham grew up in the same environment as Darcy but with none of the status (or money) of the latter; they are, essentially two sides of the same coin taking on quite opposing views of life. Where Darcy follows convention and is essentially repressed, we get to hear about how Wickham always defied convention, led a schoolboy rebellion against a tyrannical headmaster, lost his best friend at the Battle of Waterloo and comes to realise that charm can go a long way in the pursuit of a comfortable life.
Deliciously Wickham is played by Adrian Lukis who took on the same role in perhaps the most famous TV adaptation of the book – the 1995 version by Andrew Davies – the one with an unforgettable Alison Steadman as the Bennet matriarch – oh, alright then, the one with Colin Firth in a dripping wet shirt! As Lukis is indelibly associated with the role it is completely credible that he comes back to the part 25 years later and fills us in on the background to the character and does so with a merry twinkle and a subtle appreciation for the nuances of character that come from his long association with him. This is a performance of subtlety delivered in a naturalistic manner though I couldn’t help thinking that Wickham should have been rather drunk given the copious quantities of brandy which Lukis was quaffing. Generally though, it is a masterly portrayal and there is an impressive command of some very wordy passages – even if, as revealed in the post-show Q and A, there was some furious improvising going on.
Lukis is also responsible for the densely packed script in conjunction with historian Catherine Curzon who no doubt ensured that period details are correct and that the individual’s unfolding story was set against the wider background of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and the shift of society into Victorian values. From a modern perspective, Wickham’s attitude towards women – many of whom seem to attract his attention simply by being young – is highly unpalatable but without this reprehensible attitude there really wouldn’t be much of a story to tell; as the writers have Wickham observe, sometimes a rogue is needed to make a story flow.
The piece was first streamed as live by the Original Theatre Company from the grandeur of the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds which is one of the oldest working theatres in England and absolutely right for the period in which the monologue is set. Director Guy Unsworth sets the empty auditorium as a twinkling backdrop to the play which is beautifully lit by Howard Hudson who uses colour to set the tone of the various sections. Though it is never going to set the world alight this is a warm bath of a show just right for a Sunday afternoon; if it had been winter, I’d have probably been using a toasting fork over an open fire to prepare buttered crumpets.
Being Mr Wickham is available on the Original Theatre Company website – click here
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