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Playwright ponders how the Bennets got together

Sean Sadimoen (as James Bennet) and Stephanie Waldron (as Emily Gardiner) in “Mr Bennet’s Bride”. Photo: Karina Hudson

Jane Austen mania, which has swept around the world in recent years, has not left Australia unscathed and Canberra Rep is about to take full advantage of that, writes arts editor HELEN MUSA.

IN what playwright Emma Wood almost blushes to admit might be called “fan fiction”, the play is about the courtship between that unlikely couple, Mr and Mrs Bennet, of “Pride and Prejudice”.

Playwright Emma Wood… “I wanted to write substantial roles for women aged 40+ and that continues to be a driving force in my writing.”

When I catch up with director Aarne Neeme recently, he steers me firmly in the direction of Wood, whose play he describes as “lovely”. 

“What makes Austen so appealing, even to today’s audiences, is that she took on that position of women in society and didn’t shy away from them being intelligent or recognising their own flaws,” he says.

Serendipitously, although Wood now lives in Victoria, it turns out that we can justly claim her as a Canberran. She was born here, went to Aranda Primary, Canberra High and Lake Ginninderra College, and studied English, drama and law at the ANU, where she won the RF Brissenden Award for Best Essay on Poetry, later heading for Sydney and Newcastle. 

She returned with her husband and two kids between 2014 and 2016, and performed principal roles for Canberra Rep in “Blithe Spirit” and “Witness for the Prosecution”, the latter directed by Neeme, before returning to Newcastle.

But in 2016 she had also performed in Jordan Best’s production of “Playhouse Creatures” and returned with a newborn baby in arms to rehearse it before the production toured to Monaco in 2017. 

Wood praises Canberra’s “good creative scene”, but in fact wrote her first play, “Water Child”, for a Newcastle repertory theatre company in 2012.

“Mr Bennet’s Bride” came in 2014, first staged in Newcastle, but performed in Chatswood at the Jane Austen Festival in 2015. 

Three more plays have followed, including “A Hit and Miss Christmas”, and most recently “Piece Of Mind”, which premiered at the Brickhouse Theatre in Los Angeles in December, and is slated for an off-Broadway show and a production by Canberra’s Papermoon Productions in early 2024.

“I wanted to write substantial roles for women aged 40+ and that continues to be a driving force in my writing,” Wood says.

Wood is not exactly an Austen tragic herself, but her mum was, and named her “Emma” because she was reading the novel of the same name when she was expecting. As well, she was born exactly 200 years after Austen in 1975 and her six-year-old daughter shares Jane Austen’s birthday.

She doesn’t claim to be an expert, saying: “My way into ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was through the 1995 mini-series, and I’ve always enjoyed Mr and Mrs Bennet. Suddenly, I thought: ‘How did those two ever get together?’ So I decided to think it through.”

She says Austen is very strong on dialogue, so is very easy to adapt, but she stresses: “The dialogue in my play is entirely original, but it suits her style.”

“I never tried to write a novel, it came to me as a play. ‘Pride and prejudice’ is full of such colourful characters and they just dropped into my mind.”

It’s the ninth production of the play and as she admits: “I’m riding on very big coat-tails, but it’s been very well received in its own right.”

Wood’s premise is that Mr Bennet, James, in the play, is a young man in his late 20s and an only child under strong pressure to carry on the name of the estate – his father gives him a deadline.

A bit of a contrarian, James wants to find an unsuitable match on purpose, and along comes his bride-to-be, 17 to his 28 and the daughter of James’ lawyer, in the full bloom of youthful giggling joy. Her father concocts to plan to throw his pretty but silly daughter in his way. 

There are fun side-references to “Pride And Prejudice”, such as the presence, as a baby, of Collins, who will inherit the estate, because Mr Bennet is unable to produce male heirs.

“Although there are heartfelt moments in the play, I tried to stick with the idea of a comedic drama,” she says.

“We’re working with something that people know and love and this will be for people who love period plays with beautiful costumes.

“It’s my big dream that it falls into the hands of someone like Emma Thompson, who will want to stage it.”

“Mr Bennet’s Bride”, Canberra Rep Theatre, September 7-23.

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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