Writers: Adrian Lukis and Catherine Curzon
Director: Guy Unsworth
Sometimes a role will stay with an actor throughout their career; whatever they do next, however many awards they win, they will be primarily associated with their most famous role. Adrian Lukis has had a busy and diverse career but to a whole generation he is the ultimate Mr Wickham in what remains the definitive adaption of Pride and Prejudice by the BBC in 1995. But what happened to that character in the years after the story? Lukis and Catherine Curzon follow in the footsteps of P.D. James to find out in this one-man show streamed live by the Original Theatre Company from the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds.
George Wickham is 60-years old today and after a mild flirtation at a party, his wife Lydia has gone to bed in a rage and Wickham is left alone to mull over his life with only brandy and his memories for company. The chief antagonists in each other’s lives, Wickham’s every recollection leads back to his enduring rivalry with Mr Darcy, from their childhood days in the grounds of Pemberley to his dissolute 20s and what really happened after both were married.
‘Am I to be the villain of my own story?’ Whatever it must be like to return to a character 26 years on, Lukis has easily and instantly rediscovered the charisma that made his original performance so memorable. Atmospherically reliving the character’s history and philosophy, Being Mr Wickham is a fervent defence of the man who struggled for every advantage while retaining a cheeky and appealing charm even into his old age.
Part of the fun of Lukis and Curzon’s delightful text is hearing how furiously Wickham clings to the lies the audience know he told; of his willingness to accept a life at as a vicar, his genuine love for Georgiana and even a very different version of the elopement with Lydia. That, in this exploration of memory, the idea that he has repeated these stories so often he now believes them, adds a depth to this 55-minute performance that makes the character seem as much victim of his own stories as he was the villain in them.
This collection of high jinks and more introspective moments are well balanced – ‘When Lydia is happy, I am happy; When Lydia is asleep, I am delighted’ he proclaims, but it is particularly poignant when Wickham recalls his part at the Battle of Waterloo. This is touchingly recalled, staged against the smoke-filled auditorium, while the deaths of people he admired and loved like famous courtesans and the equally rakish Byron add contextual flavour that usefully expands Wickham’s life beyond the confines of Austen’s novel, situating him in the changing social and political times through which he has lasted for six decades.
Director Guy Unsworth has created an intimate experience, bringing the online viewer into the periphery of the performance using a mix of close-ups and some wide shots during some of the more expansive scenes. Designer Libby Watson suggests Wickham’s study but creates enough open space to utilise the charming backdrop of the auditorium while subtly advancing the period location to the Victorian era using furniture and costume to imply a life that has continued.
Adrian Lukis just is Mr Wickham, and this performance elicits the many layers of his personality that enchanted the Bennett sisters and Austen’s readers. The sense of a man grappling with age and the loss of his earlier vigour is well balanced with the suggestion that Wickham has always been disadvantaged by his class. There is wonderful light and shade across this performance, suggesting Wickham’s joy at life and a refusal to be maudlin for long, as well as the underlying currents that clutch at him in the quieter moments.
Being Mr Wickham is a smart and thoughtful expansion of Pride and Prejudice, offering plenty of imaginative outcomes for beloved characters that will please fans of the novel while honouring the psychology of its central scoundrel. This closeness that Unsworth creates for the audience may be harder to replicate in the theatre itself – and an October live tour will be an interesting test – but the chance to spend an hour in the company of Lukis’ Wickham is all the fun you’d hope it would be.
Runs here until 1 May 2021