Review by Philip Fisher
Polly Teale, who has written and directed this family biography, has brought Shared Experience back to familiar ground. Two of the company's greatest successes, Jane Eyre and After Mrs Rochester were variations on this theme.
In true Shared Experience style, the play combines the biographies of the members of this extraordinary writing family with linked, ethereal realisations from Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and more briefly The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In the background too, is a view of a wider world in which the Industrial Revolution is changing England forever.
We start (and end) with the actresses wryly commenting on the lives of the women whom they are to portray, prior to donning costumes and accents, in order to take us back a couple of centuries.
In front of some large, rather depressing murals painted by Anglo-Portuguese artist, Paula Rego, the bittersweet experiences of the four children of a stern, Irish vicar are brought to life for the next two and a half hours.
As was customary at the time, the initial focus is on the heir, Matthew Thomas' dissolute Branwell. He is the blue-eyed boy who seems destined to become a famous writer. Unfortunately, a love of drink (and the boss's wife) wrecks his reputation and then his health.
It is left to his sisters to achieve fame and fortune, albeit under the names of fictitious men. Their writing is their lifeblood at a time when nothing was expected of the fairer sex beyond skill with an embroidery needle or as a governess to spoilt, rich children. Emily summed it up well when she said, "When I write, I leave behind this miserable body".
Diane Beck's headstrong Emily constantly battles with the proper Charlotte (Fenella Woolgar). Their goals and attitudes could hardly be more different with Charlotte regarding Emily's work as "obscene".
Matters get worse when the great works are published and the "Bell brothers" achieve fame. Emily craves anonymity while Charlotte is happy to get her share of glory, delighting in meeting the surprisingly ordinary William Makepeace Thackeray. As Catherine Cusack had identified before becoming Anne, this last sister has to be satisfied to be remembered as little more than a footnote to her more famous siblings.
Polly Teale has cleverly interwoven the lives of the Brontës with the novels that they wrote so that, as their lives are enacted, so are their stories. In particular, dancer Natalia Tena plays a kind of feral animus who realises their sexuality in ways that the three women never could in their own day.
Brontë is the kind of thing that Shared Experience do so well. Polly Teale, who also directs, has illuminated the lives of three famous women and reminded her audience both of what good writers they are and the hurdles that they were forced to overcome in order to allow their writing to achieve publication.
As an aside, readers may be interested to learn that a limited edition Paula Rego lithograph is to be auctioned on eBay for the benefit of Shared Experience. Keep an eye out between now and 27th November.
J.D. Atkinson reviewed this production at the Theatre Royal, York.