MATTHEW KELLY is appearing as Mr Bennet in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE at the Theatre Royal in Bath from 17th January. In this extensive interview he admits he had not read the Jane Austen book before accepting the part and also reveals some striking similarities between himself and the character he is playing . . .
Why do you think people continue to be enthralled by this story?
Well, I’ll tell you something really terrible – I’d never read Pride and Prejudice before I got this job. I always thought it was a bit of a chick book, you know? But of course I’ve been forced to read it and it’s marvellous and really witty and entertaining. It’s also astonishing in its satire and not only for the time but also for today. I think, too, it has the first hints of feminism in it. It’s a marvellous story and it lends itself perfectly to being a play because there’s so much dialogue in it and the dialogue in the play is lifted straight from the book. And the reason the dialogue is so convincing and so true and the characters are so well drawn is because the Austen family used to read what she [Jane] had written to each other of an evening. They would always tell her if it didn’t ring true.
What’s your take on the character of Mr Bennet and what do you most enjoy about playing him?
Mr Bennet is an interesting man because he is in a household of six women – six women – which is tricky, plus there’s the fact he’s incredibly lazy. He’s very funny and he does say something rather terrible about his marriage at the end. I think he’s just allowed himself to drift into this morass of having to marry off daughters, which I don’t think he’s very interested in. I think he adores his children and he once adored his wife and I do think she has suffered from postnatal depression for a long, long time. I don’t think he’s ever dared really challenge her so he’s fallen back on being sarcastic and funny and the only one who can really match his wit is Elizabeth. They understand each other really well, but of course Elizabeth has her own problems in that she’s the second child and still not a son. Of course they’ve been trying for years and years to have a son and it’s not going to happen now. But I love Mr Bennet. I think he’s great, even though he is a bit idle.
Can you relate to him in any way?
Yes. I’m terribly lazy. Sitting down is my favourite thing of all time. When we’re rehearsing I’m terrible – I just love talking about it and doing anecdotes and drinking tea with my chums. So I can absolutely identify with Mr Bennet.
What do you see as the key themes of the play?
I think it’s really mocking what was going on in society in 1813, which is when it was published, and also I think there was a commercial aspect to it. She’d already written Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice was originally called First Impressions, but of course Sense and Sensibility had done so well that they wanted another alliterative title that would sell to the public. But the title absolutely captures the themes of the book – it’s about pride and it’s about prejudice. Also it’s about not reading a book by its cover and not falling for the social mores of the day, which we’re all inclined to do in whatever age we live.
How does Simon Reade’s script bring the book alive for audiences?
Simon’s put a fantastic script together. He has a couple of things on his side. One is that Jane Austen’s characters are fantastically well drawn; they’re very clear and there is a hint of stereotyping about it, but secondly – and as I said before – the dialogue is very believable. You can look at it in a couple of ways. You can look at it from a distance and go ‘Oh, weren’t they funny then?’ but you can also watch it as somebody in the present and say ‘Aren’t we funny now?’ Human beings are funny.
How is it working with director Deborah Bruce?
I love Deborah. I haven’t worked with her before but I think she’s great. She’s fantastically understanding. And it’s interesting working in a company of women. I’ve done nearly 35 plays in the last ten years and I’ve very rarely worked with a majority of women. I was in rehearsal the other day, there were 14 of us in the room, and I looked round and I was the only bloke. That’s really rare. I’ve just finished a tour of Toast, which is Richard Bean’s play, and there were seven men and no women. We have here three women stage managers, two women directors and many, many women in it. It’s an unusual experience and of course they spend most of the time telling me what men think. [Laughs] They’re entirely wrong of course but I don’t tell them that. I wouldn’t dare.
And how is it working with Felicity Montagu, who plays Mrs Bennet?
Felicity and I did a series called Kelly’s Eye on TV 30 years ago and it died a death, but I loved her then and it was a very happy company we worked with – even though the show didn’t work. I haven’t seen her properly since and I’ve certainly not worked with her. She’s absolutely perfect as Mrs Bennet. She has funny bones and she’s an intelligent and hardworking woman. She knows what she’s after, and what she’s always after is the truth. That’s the interesting thing about acting – it’s about finding the truth. That’s why actors are so terrible at lying. Actors make terrible liars because in performance you always have to find the truth and that’s what we’re after with this production and that’s what Deborah Bruce is after and Felicity Montagu and myself. We’re about finding the truth of what Jane Austen wanted to say.
What do you most enjoy about touring?
The great thing about touring is that you can see all your mates around the country and I very rarely stay in hotels. Another good thing about touring is that you’re in the company of actors and actors are the kindest, most generous-spirited, supportive people I know. [Laughs] And they’re all bonkers as well. Of course we get a bum rap because we’re all very loud, but I’ve met people from the real world and I’m not interested in them. And anyway, who wants to do a proper job? I’m not interested in that at all. I want to play in the dressing-up box with my chums.
Do you have any pre- or post-show rituals?
I have a lot of rituals when I’m working, yes. I go along with theatre superstitions, not in so far as they’re good or bad luck but because I believe in tradition and a verbal tradition as well – you know, a bit like nursery rhymes. So I love things that are to do with the theatre like not whistling in the dressing room or not mentioning ‘the Scottish play’. It doesn’t bother me if people do do that but it’s important that they have the choice, like not wearing green on stage or using the soap in a new dressing room. But I have other rituals like going through a speech before you do it, although one of the things you have to do with rituals is break them. That’s really important because if you rely on your rituals and you don’t have time to do them then they’ll put you off. So every now and then you stop doing what it is you do, but I have other silly ones. I have to splash myself seven times with cold water and that’s a ritual but I don’t always have to do it. Sometimes I stop it and go ‘Don’t do that because it’s ridiculous’ – and it is ridiculous.
What have been your career highlights so far?
The thing I enjoy the most is whatever I’m doing at the moment and I have a shocking memory. I can’t remember anything. People tell me about stuff that we’ve done and I don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s the same with films. I was looking for the film Downfall about Hitler. It’s a well-known German film and I’d been dying to see it for ages and ages. Then I saw on my son’s shelf a video of it. So I borrowed it, put it in the player – and it’s a very long film, around three hours long – and I got to ten minutes before the end and went ‘Oh, I’ve already seen it!’
Matthew Kelly stars in Pride and Prejudice which tours to the Theatre Royal Bath from Tuesday 17th to Saturday 21st January