The Brontë Season (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall)
The Everyman Theatre Cheltenham
Butterfly Psyche's production of The Brontë Season provides the dramatisation of new adaptations of the three Brontë sisters novels: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Quite remarkably, each of these weighty classics is brought to life in little over an hour in versions that have a modern focus without betraying the original works in any way.
The performance space at The Everyman Theatre Studio in Cheltenham with its compact intimacy could not have been more appropriate for staging three dramatic stories which came to life so remarkably in the remote confines of a miniscule Yorkshire vicarage.
Jane Eyre, adapted by Dougie Blaxland and performed as a solo play by Alison Campbell, is a theatrical tour-de-force. The decision to discard Charlotte Brontë's linear narrative for a structure in which the heroine's past is revealed through a series of dramatic flashbacks is a brave one but it works beautifully and enhances the overwhelming sense of a young woman struggling to free herself as an independent woman from the conventions of her time and the cruelty of her upbringing.
Alison Campbell is superb in capturing the delicate balance of moral strength and vulnerability that characterises Jane. Even more astonishing though is the way she moves with seamless ease from one character to another encompassing the contrasts of the unimaginative pragmatism of Mrs Fairfax and the smouldering passion of Rochester. This is theatre at its best—utterly compelling and profoundly moving.
Wuthering Heights, performed as a two-hander by Alison Campbell and Jeremy Foulds, is brought to theatrical life with great skill through the combination of sympathetic script, strong performances and thoughtful direction.
The challenge in dramatising Emily Brontë's great novel is how to avoid the loss of emotional intensity once Cathy has died. This production rises to the occasion largely because Ellen Dean and Lockwood are retained as the central pillars of the narrative to whom we return after each re-enacted episode. This establishes a rhythm ebbing and flowing as the action moves back and forth between reflection and dramatic immediacy.
The whole thing is anchored by Ian McGlynn's direction. The story is stripped back to the simplicity of story-telling with the narrative delivered directly and with integrity to the audience. In addition the use of synchronised semi-circular movements delineating changes in character or time adds simple clarity to a plot notorious for its complexity.
Alison Campbell shines in her roles as Ellen, Cathy and Young Cathy, whilst Jeremy Foulds proves an able foil as he switches convincingly from the dapper precision of Lockwood to the slouching turmoil of Heathcliff. Whilst peripheral characters are sacrificed in the focus on Heathcliff and Cathy's story, it is a price well worth paying.
I admit to being concerned at the decision to include Anne Brontë's flawed novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as part of the repertoire for The Brontë Season, but Alison Farina's wonderful adaptation is such an improvement on the original work that the difficult issues with which Anne Brontë was grappling are given clear definition.
Ms Farina has made brave decisions in leaving out extraneous characters and events and focusing very clearly on Helen Graham and the story of her hideously abusive marriage. The fact that this tale deals with contemporary issues is reinforced by Shane Morgan's imaginative direction.
Choices of costume, movement and tone of performance all reinforce the sense that we are witnessing something current and relevant. Like Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is written as a two-hander and Madelaine Ryan and Kristoffer Huball demonstrate real skill as they switch character with precise physical and vocal definition.
At the heart of this admirable production, though, lies Madelaine Ryan's sensitive and moving portrayal of Helen Graham's humiliation at the hands of her brutish, alcoholic husband. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a must-see show whether or not you have read the original.
Butterfly Psyche's brilliant Brontë Season continues as part of the Mendip and Merlin Theatre programme until March 10 before transferring to Dorchester Arts on March 13 and finishing at The Rondo Theatre Bath on Saturday 14 March. Don't miss it.
Reviewer: Sue Gordon