Arts & Culture

A pastoral romance

The cast of Pride in Prejudice walking through the Arboretum

Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum will stage a fresh take on “Pride and Prejudice,” Jane Austen’s tale of 19th-century love.

Photos by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

5 min read

Arnold Arboretum will host performance of Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’

Looking for a little outdoor romance this summer? Look no further than Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, where a fresh take on Jane Austen’s tale of 19th-century love, “Pride and Prejudice,” will be on view June 23 courtesy of the Actors’ Shakespeare Project (ASP) and playwright Kate Hamill.

The Arboretum’s lush landscape has been the backdrop for a range of music and theater productions in recent years, with its hills, gardens, fields, and groves doubling as living playhouses and concert halls. Staging dramatic works on park grounds fits with the ASP’s mission of offering performances in found spaces, said organizers, and with the Arboretum’s goal of fostering community engagement and connecting people with art and the natural world.

“This is a part of Harvard University that has so much to offer in terms of enriching the lives of the people of Boston and beyond,” said Arboretum Director William “Ned” Friedman, the Arnold Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. “This is a really critical part of what we do beyond the academics. We invite the public to explore the arts, botany, science, and the environment right here on these great 281 acres.”

Last year’s ASP production of “Macbeth” at the Arboretum played to a capacity crowd. More than 1,000 spectators filled the base of the hill next to the park’s Hunnewell Visitor Center, which doubled as the stage for an abridged version of the work about an all-consuming ambition fueled by a trio of mysterious witches. Artist Fujiko Nakaya’s ghostlike fog installation added to the atmosphere, conjuring the mist-swept highlands where Shakespeare’s Scottish play unfolds. “You really felt like you were in the forest with these performers and these magical scenes,” said Friedman.

The success of “Macbeth” inspired organizers to stage another play this summer in the Arboretum, the crowning jewel of the Emerald Necklace, a seven-mile network of parks in Boston and Brookline designed by the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. But Austen’s witty romantic satire required a different touch. To evoke the majestic gardens of Pemberley, the expansive estate owned by Austen’s wealthy protagonist, Mr. Darcy, ASP Artistic Director Chris Edwards and his team chose the Arboretum’s Leventritt Shrub and Vine Garden, which includes linear planting beds, terrace walls made of New England fieldstone, and walking paths that wind through a range of trees, shrubs, and vines, as their stage.

the cast of price and prejudice dancing
the cast of pride and prejudice rehearses in the Arboretum

Cast members rehearse — and frolic — in the Arnold Arboretum.

“At the end of the day I think [with Jane Austen’s work] a lot of what happens happens outside,” said Edwards, “and I think part of that is a function of the Romantic idea of the sublime and having the natural world that you are in be bigger and overtake you.” With the Arboretum as their setting, the actors are able to connect even more deeply with “these moments of utter expression and experiencing of the sublime” that unfold as Austen’s characters stroll through Pemberley’s grounds, he added.

Creating theater under the sun and stars is a natural for Edwards, the former associate director of the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, a company known for its open-air productions and the location of Hamill’s “Pride and Prejudice” premiere in 2017. For Edwards, wild weather, including thunder and lightning storms and wild animals, such as a wayward deer that once wandered across his stage, can produce theatrical gold.

“I think there’s something about not being able to control the space completely and utterly I find as a performer I love, as a director I love, and as a producer I love, in that anything can happen at any time if you are working with the natural world,” he said. “And the space that the actor has to take up to meet nature where it lives is amazing.”

Hamill, who starred as Lizzy Bennet in her work’s 2017 debut and had a close encounter with a raccoon just offstage, agreed. “Good acting is all about responding to what is in the moment, what’s in front of you, and a willingness to be present,” Hamill said. “And nothing forces you to be present like bad weather or animals.”

A performance in the open air also fits with the playwright’s approach of infusing classic theater with new life and modern flair. Instead of “porcelain teacups, absolute dramaturgical realism, it seems like you actually can be more rough-and-tumble,” said Hamill of working in the outdoors. “It can break up what your idea of that world is.”

“Pride and Prejudice” will be performed June 23 at 5 p.m. in the Arboretum’s Leventritt Shrub and Vine Garden. The rain date is June 24 at 5 p.m. It is free and open to the public.