At the Tron Theatre in Glasgow, something’s up – and not in a bad way. There are five fierce women performers and theatre-makers in rehearsal, wearing a leftfield version of regency costumes and playing guitars; one of them is Isobel McArthur, writer and actor, who has produced the script for a version of Pride And Prejudice that looks set to demolish for good, in the minds of those who see it, the widespread false perception of Jane Austen’s 1813 classic as a prissy and precise piece of “women’s literature”, mainly concerned with bonnets and good manners.
Together with the director, Paul Brotherston, McArthur forms the heart and soul of the brilliant young Glasgow-based theatre collective Blood Of The Young, who are co-producing the show – called Pride And Prejudice* (*Sort Of) – with the Tron Theatre. And if this show seems set to do full justice to the sheer economic brutality of the situation faced by Austen’s female characters (marry some idiot of a man who happens to want you, or face a future of absolute penury and humiliation), that’s because it’s entirely typical of the work of a young company who have made an unusually vivid mark on the Scottish theatre scene since they formed at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2014, and who seem likely to play an important role in shaping its future.
Last year, their memorable show Daphne Oram’s Wonderful World Of Sound – about a remarkable female electronic composer who emerged from the BBC in the mid-20th century – toured Scotland, from Aberdeen to Galashiels. And through work with the Glasgow band Golden Arm, McArthur’s own solo show How To Sing It (about growing up between the cultures of Manchester and Castlemilk), and their programme of monthly workshops at which young Glasgow theatre-makers gather to sing a bit, do some physical training, and test out ideas, Blood Of The Young have not only become the National Theatre of Scotland’s first emergent company in residence, but have also developed a radical-but-unpredictable creative agenda, and a cross-art-form style involving music as much as traditional theatre, that seems to speak for, and to, a new generation of theatre-makers and audiences.
“I think this latest project was born,” says McArthur, “when the NTS artistic director Jackie Wylie was running the Take Me Somewhere festival, and floated the question of what emerging performance companies would do if they were adapting a stone-cold classic, like Pride And Prejudice. Paul and I had a dog-eared copy of the book, and of course we knew about all the recent screen versions, with Mr Darcy’s wet shirt and all that, but I thought, let’s just sit down and read it; and keep reading it until you’re no longer distracted by the old-fashioned language and so on, and you can really see what it is that this story is doing, and what makes so gripping.
“And what I saw was a story about women who are all victims of historic and sociological circumstances – almost prisoners of them – and about the intense relationships between them. I was particularly fascinated by what goes on between Mrs Bennett and her daughters; she’s constantly forcing them into dreadful situations, but you can see exactly why. And then there’s the very passionate friendship between the heroine Lizzie and her friend Charlotte Lucas, who marries the ghastly Mr Collins, just because she has to marry someone; I’m tempted to see it as a great lost lesbian love affair, in an age when such things were just not thinkable for most women.”
As well as playing Mrs Bennett, McArthur will also play Mr Darcy, and a servant called Flo; she describes adapting a novel with so many characters for a cast of five as something like solving a puzzle, nor is there any lack of creative input from the rest of the cast, who include actor and playwright Meghan Tyler - another Blood Of The Young founder – and the Edinburgh-based actor, singer and theatre-maker Hannah Jarrett Scott.
“I think, as a company, we’re more interested in what stories do than in what they’re about – and in their form and cultural memory as much as their surface narrative,” says Paul Brotherston, a Kelso man who went to Edinburgh University and met McArthur and other Blood Of The Young members when they were studying for the famous RCA masters degree in classic and contemporary text. “We just had this image of women in Regency costumes, but linked to the 21st century through music and style and attitude. These are people restricted by systems, and that’s a timeless image, often obscured by the traditional approach to this story. So it was always key to the idea that we would use love songs, pop songs, that seemed to fit the characters. This company are a true ensemble, and great collaborators; and although our creative process can seem gloriously inefficient, we hope it produces a good, exciting show.”
If that sounds like Jane Austen’s much-loved characters reimagined as an early 19th century Pussy Riot, then it seems unlikely that Blood Of The Young would object to the image. McArthur is clear, though, that she’s not interested in producing a send-up or parody of Jane Austen’s much-loved original novel; just the reverse.
“This novel means a great deal to a lot of people,” says McArthur, “and I think it’s important to draw on Austen’s own humour and ingenuity, first and foremost – rather than believing it can be bettered. And the most important thing of all is to create an utterly un-stuffy show that any audience – regardless of whether they’ve ever heard of Jane Austen, or been to the theatre before – can enjoy as a great night out; uplifting, and genuinely entertaining.”
Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 28 June until 14 July