Sunday, 26 March 2017

"Brontë" by Polly Teale (2005): A Review

Charlotte. Emily. Anne.

These are famous names, in that one need only repeat them as a trio and most readers or listeners will know exactly which Charlotte, Emily and Anne you mean; chances are it's not your dowager aunts. But more often we refer to them, perhaps too often, as "the Brontës", as though they were a single unit with a single set of concerns and interests, or a single style, rather than three fiercely delineated individuals. This is misleading and unhelpful; these remarkable sisters differed dramatically from one another even taking into account their clear similarities. That they did live and grow up together, their fates so closely intertwined, is conveyed in the curiously-titled "Brontë", the single solitary surname resounding as it does with a sobriety and dignity that feels almost regal, as though it warrants a preceding "The House of...". Mercifully, however, Polly Teale's 2005 play also has the common sense to treat them as separate individuals with all the joys, difficulties, and complexities that entails, all of which Thistledown Theatre's recommended production (running until 1st April in the Old Library, University Church, Oxford) brings to the fore.

Directors Sarah Pyper and Rebekah King have succeeded in streamlining what is a generally good but occasionally clunky or heavy-handed work into an engaging piece of theatre in an excellent setting, boasting likeable and sympathetic performances from its leads. A little too much exposition at the start aside, the production launches right into telling the tale of Charlotte, Emily & Anne, plus their father Patrick and their idle, alcoholic wastrel brother Branwell - from early childhood days, in which Charlotte (Layla Al-Katib) and Branwell (Craig Finlay) were the closest pair, to the story's tragic end, by which stage they are the most estranged. "Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live", intones Patrick (Colin Burnie) and though the flurry of deaths at the denouement risks tipping over into tragicomic farce, they are just carefully spaced enough, and this production's actors are good enough to sell the sequence. As each sibling dies and is led by the hand by those who have gone before, we get a powerful sense of their shared tragedy, but also their shared lineage, their shared kinship, as though - in some sense more powerful than the concrete - they did not die alone.

But let us put to one side Charlotte, Emily & Anne's eventual fates, and go back to their lives. In many ways these lives were unremarkable: sheltered, isolated, lived vicariously through hearing the exploits of their brother -- and yet phenomenally enriched by the vast quantities of literature upon which they gorged, encouraged as they were by their father to read anything they could get their hands on. It is the stories they told in life, after all, which resonate with us most; and indeed the parts of this production which engage the audience most successfully are those which are ... well, told by the Brontë sisters themselves. Segments of "Wuthering Heights" (1847), "Jane Eyre" (1847) and "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" (1848) interweave with the domesticity of the Yorkshire family home. We are presented with Emily (Emily Saddler)'s growing love of the moor and its wildness and passion, and -- one murky lighting change later -- she and a psychic projection of Cathy (Helen Coathup Collier) are interacting, reciting dialogue from the novel, and her real life and the life of her fictional creation merge. This is far from aimless metafictionality, but rather serves to illustrate Emily's interiority in an appropriately visual milieu: her desires and obsessions, her fantasies and fears.

The same proves true of Charlotte, who takes the childhood game she shared with Branwell of seafaring and exploring far-flung islands and crafts it into the background of Rochester and his mad wife Bertha (also Collier) ... and we all know where that story-line leads. Al-Katib is very good, a strong stage presence and in most respects the anchor of this production, though Saddler's Emily is most likely to move you. It is Anne, unsurprisingly, who gets the shortest shrift, and it is certainly fair to say that in the general consciousness "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" and "Agnes Grey" (1847) do not have quite the same totemic power or allure as "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights", but they certainly have their admirers; this production sells Anne rather short too, but Holly Gorne does a good job with the part and one highlight sees her rejecting the advances of the alcoholic, lascivious Arthur Huntingdon, the eponymous tenant. Special mention must go to Peter Sheward, who successfully transforms himself from Rochester to Heathcliff to Huntingdon with the bare minimum of costume alteration to assist him in distinguishing between these three characters. Meanwhile, the three leads are ably supported by Finlay, Burnie, Collier and lastly Henry Cockburn who gives a sweet turn as Charlotte's husband Arthur Bell Nicholls.

"Brontë" is a recommended evening at the theatre for anyone who is interested in these three remarkable figures in literary history. You will come away from this production, I feel confident in saying, with a renewed appreciation of not just the uphill struggle which the sisters underwent to make their names as authors, but also a more profound understanding of them as human beings who existed outside the confines of the pages they left behind them.

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