Thursday, 28 March 2013

It is a truth universally acknowledged...

...that adaptations of books to another medium, stage or screen, tend to be littered with potential  pitfalls and are rather difficult to pull off.

One person who I'm afraid did not really succeed in getting his adaptation to work is Mr. Bernard J. Taylor, responsible for the musical adaptation of Pride & Prejudice which I saw performed last friday by the Bradford University Society of Operettas and Musicals.

I suppose I should make some comment on the quality of the production as well as the adaptation. For all that I didn't like the way the work had been adapted, I thought the company did a decent job with what they had. Some of it seemed a bit more static than I might have liked. I feel some of the actors could perhaps have given a bit more, and others maybe could have done a bit more with additional direction. And despite the fact the music was for the most part fairly simple, I definitely noticed some wrong notes here and there. I felt most of the cast were considerably better actors than singers. Oh, and the energy was a bit variable. It definitely took a little while to get going, and then the second half was also a bit lacking at some points early on.
Specific performances - Mr. Bingley was excellent, and I'm not just saying that because he's a good friend of mine. I believe he has a lot more acting and singing experience than the rest of the cast, and it shows - he knows what he's doing at all points. Caroline  Bingley also impressed - singing perhaps a bit shaky on her solo, but she had just the right manner in her acting. Mr. Darcy's superior acting was likewise superb, though I can't recall what I thought of his romantic acting later on. His voice seemed more suited to pop singing than what I would have expected, though in some cases that suited the music well enough (Whether I think it should have is another matter, but that's a quarrel with the adaptation again). Lydia was wodnerfully energetic as the character should be, and served as a nice antidote at times to the static nature of some of the scenes, which I've already mentioned. Lady Catherine's singing was very good  (allowing for the fact I didn't think so much of the music), though I felt her acting lacked somewhat of the authority she should have. Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins, though good, I felt could have been more over the top - Mr. Collins in particular suffered a little from the fact that the adaptation didn't include enough of the character's overblown sesquipedalian dialogue, and so I feel or more overblown perofrmance could have helped compensate for this.
...I realise I've come up with nothing to say for four of the main characters, and I'm struggling to come up with anything. I fear I must plead my tiredness on the day, and my patchy memory almost a week later, as my excuse. Certainly I thought they were good. I may have had some criticisms also. Though some of them might have been attributed to not being so well fitted to the (in my opinion) poorly written material they had to work with. Should the actors in question ever read this blog post, I apologise; but in any case I never really intended this to be a serious critical review - if I had, I would probably have tried to take notes during the performance, and certainly I would have written it sooner, while I still remembered what I was talking about.


Alright, so on to the bigger point - that of the adaptation itself.
One of the first negative points I noted while watching the performance was that the scene changes were taking up more time than I would've liked. Of course, one must consider that BUSOM are a student society, that their resources are limited, and that the theatre they use is not the best set up for such scene changes. But a more significant point is that I don't feel the show should have been written to have so many scene changes. Or if they had to be there (Which might have been the case for a few of them), things should have been shifted so the scene change could have been, say, partially covered by a song. Thinking about it now, this probably didn't help with the energy taking a little while to get going - constantly stopping and starting inevitably breaks the flow, making it more difficult for the cast to get into it as well as the audience, and the cast's performances may then be affected, making it still more difficult for the audience. Bernard J. Taylor seems to have made no allowance for the need to keep the show flowing in writing this adaptation. In fact, it strikes me it seems like it might have been written for TV or film, where one can easily cut between different scenes rather than having to halt the action to move scenery. I wonder what the flow was like at the first read-through of the script, where that wasn't an issue.
On this point of scenes, the decisions on what elements of the book to cut and what to keep seemed sometimes odd to me. Some things I would have thought more plot-relevant were cut out, while other moments were kept which, though amusing, were unnecessary. Nothing I would want cut, there were good character moments and humour in there, but given how much was cut out, I would prefer for the integrity of the story to have a bit more emphasis on the main plot. Make sure someone coming to see the show without knowing the plot in advance would still understand it. In the end, it is a rather lengthy plot, and thus difficult to fit into the length of a musical. For the first time, I'm a bit curious to see the more recent film version, since that will have been in a similar time-frame, and I wonder how well they managed it (Of course, one of the reasons I didn't want to see it when it was originally in cinemas was because I didn't think they could compress the story enough without damaging it)

Let's move on to the music. A point which must be noted is that in a musical or an opera, a lot of songs will do little to advance the plot, instead restating and expressing a character's emotions on an event which has already happened immediately before. And of course, when a work is of considerable length, such songs are things which may be more easily cut to make way for a bit more of the plot. Bernard J. Taylor's Pride and Prejudice has 30 songs in it (to start with, that's more than I would expect in a show full stop, though perhaps the shows I'm used to have longer songs), of which I think at least 10 serve no real purpose and could be cut without damaging the audience's understanding of the plot. This is not to say they should all have been cut, some of them I rather enjoyed, but some of them certainly could have been removed. And if they had been removed, there would have been more room in the show for additional dialogue, which given the intricacies of the plot of P&P, must be a good thing (especially in light of what I've already said above about chocie of scenes included or cut from the book).
My other point on the music is a stylistic one. I'll withhold criticism for the general lack of harmony or counterpoint, as I'm sure many other musicals wouldn't hold up to my tastes on that point either, and in the end it is a matter of personal taste. I will, however comment on the general style of the music - I mentioned above that Darcy's voice seemed more suited to pop songs that I might have expected, but that this fit some of the music fairly well. It's my personal feeling that this shouldn't be the case. Of course I must allow that my own stage experience comprises almost entirely of Gilbert & Sullivan, but other styles are equally valid, including what would be termed showtunes or more poppy, modern music. However, a story such as Pride & Prejudice, steeped as it is in 19th century values, should to my mind have music which would not sound out of place in the period in which the story takes place. As such I feel Mr. Taylor went severely wrong in some of his composing. I could probably come up with some more criticisms given a look at the sheet music, but such a thing is not feasible, and in any case I think that's enough.

Finally, the words. Starting with the words of the songs, to follow on from the music, and then we'll tackle the dialogue. The one point I really have to make about the lyrics is that in some cases I didn't think they expressed the intended ideas and emotions as well as they might, and in some cases they expressed ideas and emotions which were not present in the source material being adapted. Obviously in adapting a work you can take the opportunity to put your own stamp on it, but I was still mildly put off, and I would say in general that, particularly with a story as well known and popular as this one, it's best to change things a lot or hardly at all - a point to which I'll return in a minute.
And now the dialogue. Here is where my feeling of the stylistic dissonance really kicked in in a massive way. Because naturally, some of the dialogue was taken directly from the book, and this was all well and good. Other bits of the dialogue, however, were written by Bernard J. Taylor - in some cases specifically rewriting existing lines from the book - and in a distinct majority of cases which I noticed, he widely missed the mark of Victorian English, instead having the characters speak as if they might have been born... well, at about the time the actors playing them were born, in fact. Modern English in Jane Austen, mixed in with actual Jane Austen. A travesty if ever I heard one.
This is not to say that a modern take on Pride and Prejudice can't work of course. Such a thing already exists on the internet - I am exceedingly fond of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries. But this was not such a thing. Whereas the LBD are properly updated to the modern day and the story has been correspondingly adapted to fit in with modern sensibilities on the parts of the characters and so on, Bernard J. Taylor's adaptation was left in the original time period, and the characters simply speak as if they were in the modern day, some of the time. If it was all the time I might be able to let it pass. It would be odd, but allowing an anachronistic mode of speech in a story to put points in more accessible terms for the modern audience could be considered to make some sense. It would at least be consistent, and then my stylistic issues with the music would fall down as well, as the music would match the dialogue throughout. Such a thing would certainly not be without its problems, and perhaps would work better if played more for laughs in an over the top manner, but again I say, at least it would be consistent. As it is, the setting and the music clash, and the dialogue swings back and forth between them like the mutual best friend of two people who aren't speaking to one another, trying to adhere to both.

Overall,  as I said, I give my compliments to the performers, as they did fairly well with what they had (And I hope they pick a better show for next year), but not the writer/composer, for I fear anyone who had this show as their first ever exposure to Pride and Prejudice would be unlikely to move on and look into other versions. And that would be a great shame, because it's an excellent story. On which note, I'm now going to return to the book and/or the BBC TV version. Much better.

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