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Actor and writer Isobel McArthur: ‘Our take on Jane Austen is a big, daft night out’

Isobel McArthur. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

After graduating from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Isobel McArthur set up theatre company Blood of the Young with director Paul Brotherston. She tells Giverny Masso about writing the company’s latest production, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ perspective…

How would you describe Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of)?
It’s a romantic comedy with karaoke – a big, daft night out. You don’t need to know anything about Austen or know the novel, it’s for people who have never come across it in their lives.

What was the inspiration behind the show?
I was guilty of inverted snobbery, thinking ‘the Austenites, they’re a club and they’re swapping jokes about bonnets in order to make the rest of us to feel stupid’. There’s a sense it might be unrelatable and dull – dukes in drawing rooms with plummy voices fiddling over the minutiae of their lives. One difficulty with getting people to come to the theatre is a sense of perceived exclusivity. I wanted to burst that bubble and relax an audience.

Why did you choose to focus on six female servants?
One thing that’s not covered in many adaptations of Pride and Prejudice is that it’s set during the Napoleonic Wars. One result of that was that a disproportionate number of household servants were women, because men were being called up to fight. I also feel more broadly it’s very important to acknowledge that we have the servants of the past to thank for the arts’ existence. Without them doing the housework, the artist can’t sit and paint the portrait or compose the concerto. It felt right that they should have their moment and be able to embody all the characters, including their masters and the romantic leads, because the servants themselves in Austen’s novels don’t have happy endings: they don’t get featured roles and they don’t get to fall in love.

Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of) review at Tron Theatre, Glasgow – ‘an irreverent riff on Jane Austen’

What characterises Blood of the Young’s work?
The string that connects our work is theatre that features music – generous, forward-facing, front-footed stuff that breaks the fourth wall, addresses the audience directly and embodies quite a lot of the values of Glasgow’s music halls. It’s personality-led performance that takes itself seriously at points – but never too seriously.

What show has been particularly important in your career?
Cock by Mike Bartlett. I played a woman who was 27 and you could walk right round her. She was completely real. I thought: “This is fantastic, she’s a real human being.” When you’re in your 20s and going for castings, often you’re just the ingenue that gets brought on to lure the man away from his wife for half a second before they get murdered. Reading that character, I thought: “This is the most exciting 20-something woman I’ve ever come across.”

Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of) is running at Bristol Old Vic until September 28 and touring the UK until March 28, 2020. 

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