Theatre Royal, York
Novelists, poets and pillars of the heritage industry, the Brontë sisters have acquired a semi-mythological status unique in the history of English literature. There is something perennially fascinating about the three gifted sisters who lived in not-so-genteel poverty with their strict clergyman father and alcoholic brother. Now Polly Teale, whose adaptation of Jane Eyre was such a great success for Shared Experience a few years ago, takes on the story of Yorkshire's most famous literary daughters.
Those familiar with the Shared Experience performance style will not expect a straightforward biographical play, and Angela Davies' set - a smokeblackened façade with interior walls incorporating Paula Rego's unsettling images of Victorian women - makes no concessions to costume-drama realism.
The author, who also directs, begins the play with three actresses in modern dress musing on the Brontë legend. As they don their costumes they assume the identities of Emily (Diane Beck), Charlotte (Fenella Woolgar) and Anne (Catherine Cusack). The characters move back and forth in time, creating their childhood fantasy worlds of Gondal and Angria with adored brother Branwell (Matthew Thomas), caring for their overbearing father Patrick (David Fielder), struggling to make their livings as governesses and working on their novels. The sisters are also haunted by Cathy Eamshaw, the mad Mrs Rochester (both played by Natalia Tena), Heathcliffe and Arthur Huntingdon (the drunken husband in Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall).
Every member of the cast rises to the challenge of playing England's foremost literary family and their creations. Diane Beck vividly conveys Emily's self-contained genius and contempt for celebrity; Fenella Woolgar's Charlotte, unlikely literary lion and the only sibling to marry, manages to retain our sympathy even when she becomes the self-appointed censor of her dead sisters' works; and Catherine Cusack gives a touching performance as Anne, who despite a gentle and (by Brontë standards) conventional nature managed to produce an account of domestic violence that scandalized Victorian critics even more than Emily's Wuthering Heights. Natalia Tena's Cathy is spinechillingly effective, but her Creole Mrs Rochester suffers from Teale's overuse of heavy-handed symbolism - do we really need the character's frequent appearances, usually crawling on her hands and knees, to grasp that the "madwoman in the attic" represents the repressed sexuality and anger of Victorian women?
As the title indicates, the play isn't solely concerned with the three sisters. Matthew Thomas' Branwell, first seen as a lively and imaginative young boy, is more than the untalented runt of a brilliant family - his pitiful descent into alcoholism and drug addiction is triggered by the unrealistic expectations of his family, who regard him as their only hope of escape from poverty and obscurity. David Fielder plays Patrick Brontë as an autocratic but not unloving father and also doubles as the curate Arthur Bell Nicholls, whose spaniel-like devotion to Charlotte drove him to the brink of a nervous breakdown before she finally accepted his proposal of marriage.
Teale's strangely insensitive treatment of this episode, reduced to its bare bones and played for laughs, is one of several "liberties" she admits to taking with biographical fact (for understandable purposes of clarity) and the only one that strikes a jarringly false note; otherwise the play is an ingenious and gripping interpretation of the Brontë legend.
At the Theatre Royal, York, until 15th October, then touring to Oxford, Liverpool, London (Lyric Hammersmith) and Salford
Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Lyric, Hammersmith
Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson