Mr Bennet’s Bride

Mr Bennet’s Bride
By Emma Wood. Canberra Repertory. Directed by Aarne Neeme. Theatre 3, Acton, A.C.T. 7–23 September 2023.

Emma Wood’s clever prequel to Pride and Prejudice looks at how the Bennet sisters’ parents came to marry.  James Bennet has spent much of his 28 years antagonising his widowed father, Robert, who has raised him with help from his widowed sister, Mary Ellingworth.  Robert is increasingly concerned that, under England’s laws of inheritance, the estate of Longbourne will eventually pass to the son of his loathsome cousin Benedict Collins unless James marries and produces a male heir.  But James has no interest in thinking of the future or in pleasing his father.  Finally, Robert uses a contract to force James to take a wife; and James responds by wooing a most unsuitable young woman, Emily Gardiner, the daughter of the very family solicitor who drew up the contract.

The play is very much a comedy, and one that works best to the extent that its players use mannerisms and timing to good effect.  In REP’s production, delivery of lines was generally terrific, and the chemistry between characters was well-established.  Excellent coordination between players ensured fine comic moments of formal politeness and of subtly revealed exasperation.  Terry Johnson, as Benedict Collins, contributed to the exasperation by perfectly conveying Collins’s covetousness beneath a veneer of familial bonhomie.  Liz St Clair Long carried the character of the young James Bennet’s insightful and infinitely patient aunt, Mary Ellingworth, as though born to the role, and Rob de Fries inhabited the long, lonely grief that distanced Robert Bennet from his son, allowing us to understand both his frustration at their relationship and his anxiety over the future of Longbourne.

Sean Sadimoen, as James Bennet, brought to the role a background in standup comedy, and Stephanie Waldron, as Emily Gardiner, has a background in theatre, dance, and public speaking, which well armed her for conveying the character of an overexcitable flibbertigibbert.

The remaining characters, especially the Bennets’ housemaid, Mrs Graves (Sally Rynveld), came to convincing life with very creditable restraint.

Adding great visual interest to the characters’ complicated interactions were costuming, adding a marvellous authenticity, and a revolving set featuring furniture credibly belonging to the period.  Costuming and set design, a consistent strength of Canberra REP productions, contributed to bringing the audience right into these late-eighteenth-century homes and helping us experience the passions, anxieties, and attractions of the characters living in them.

John P. Harvey

Images: (top) Sean Sadimoen and Stephanie Waldron as James Bennet and Emily Gardiner, and (lower) Rob de Fries and Liz St Clair Long as Robert Bennet and Mary Ellingworth, in Mr Bennet’s Bride. Photographer: Karina Hudson.

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