Intentionally or not, Brontë the play, by Polly Teale is a subtle education into the nature of literary creativity placed firmly, and muddy booted, in the stark wilderness of the Yorkshire moors on to the all, soul revealing expanses of the stage. It is the polar opposite of didactic and explores the phenomenon of success by women in a Victorian world, albeit in a society that sadly, was ludicrously hard pushed to recognise the creative talents of any sex other than male.
‘Brontë’ is Teale’s third and final play to explore the works of the Brontë family, following on from her adaptation of ‘Jane Eyre’ and her original play ‘After Mrs Rochester’, which was based on the life of Jean Rhys and her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, (itself inspired by Jane Eyre). The play was first performed by Shared Experience Theatre Company in 2005 and depicts the lives of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell Brontë.
The play (and also this Lace Market Theatre production) begins with three actresses in modern dress discussing the Brontës and their work. Some of the other actors also mill around the stage in modern day costume as the audience take their seats. Artifice then transfers into art. As they don their costumes the women assume the identities of Emily, Charlotte and Anne. Without a chronological structure, the characters move back and forth in time recounting scenes from their lives both as documented, and as imagined, by the author Polly Teale. Throughout the play, the story of the three women and their brother Branwell is entwined with appearances from the characters from their writing.
The play also shows the difficulties the writers had in their private and literary lives, not least of which was the inherent chauvinism entrenched in Victorian society, the hardship of life as an unmarried woman and (spoiler alert) the poor health of all four of them which leads to their untimely deaths and short lived happiness. It is somewhat ironic that the sisters never really lived long enough to realise the true genius in their writing and the paths their stories would take in our contemporary culture.
One wonders how they would consider the advent of television and film and audio versions of their works. As religious as they were, the futuristic result may well be too much for them to take in. Pride combined with disbelief in one’s own aesthetic is an unwieldy and heady affair. After all, the mere acknowledgement of being an authentic woman writer was a huge step for them to consider in their own lifetimes.
After viewing the play one might ask “How was it possible that these three celibate Victorian sisters, living in isolation on the Yorkshire moors, could have written some of the most passionate, bordering on erotic, fiction of all time?” One might also consider Teale’s own interest in theatre’s potential to, as she is quoted as expressing, ‘make visible what is hidden, to give form to the world of imagination, emotion and memory, to go beyond the surface of everyday life.’ The ‘power of the imagination to transcend time and place and circumstance, to take us to places we cannot otherwise go’ is powerfully wrought in her theatrical text and story.
So how does the Lace Market Theatre production, admirably directed by David Dunford, fulfil these desires to educate, elucidate and entertain? A strong core of the four main leads is essential. Thankfully we have this in spades. A heady mix of naturalistic acting combined with a dramatically heightened interpretation of the story and its subtexts and other-worldly elements is vital to the unfolding of a very captivating drama. This production is so much less of a limp and stodgy Yorkshire Pudding and much more of an eagerly anticipated feast of an aromatic Yorkshire stew and unctuous, extremely edible herby dumplings. No female dumplings are inferred in this review by the way!
Fine ingredients make a fine feast and the superb performances by Lucy Theobald (Charlotte Brontë), Abigail Mahoney (Anne Brontë), Charlie Osborne (Emily Brontë) and Daniel Potts as Branwell Brontë stir the audience’s soul throughout. It is as if we are voyeuristic onlookers into the most private moments of their cloistered lives. Theobald is especially good in this respect. Her studied interpretation combines a solid understanding of her character and its actualised, yet frustrated ambitions, strengths and vulnerabilities combined with diversions into bringing her innate creativity to life. The rivalry between the sisters is apparent and so is the luscious joy in recognising the acknowledgement of their literary endeavours by their predominantly male author contemporaries.
The first act is a mix of back tracking nostalgia and chronological; one moment we are in the Brontë siblings’ childhood the next in adulthood looking after the visually ill father (an excellently subtle portrayal by Daniel Bryant as Patrick Brontë and later as encouraging tutor M. Héger).
The theme of escape and freedom is theatrically examined through ornithology and some excellent AV effects throughout the production. The second act makes sense of the first and becomes more chronological in form and nature. Like the aforementioned Yorkshire stew the theatrical whole is plate lickingly satisfying.
The play concentrates on the key personalities and the very humble, religious and practical lives of the Brontë sisters and their wayward brother Branwell, plus their predominant Father and his failing eyesight. Yet, set amongst all this Victorian rural ‘normality’ flows a passionate vein of potential literary success in this most unprepossessing family. In our modern day parlance we might conjecture “Who would have thought?”
And this is where the play scores most highly in its structure. Balanced against the mundane reality of living in a remote Yorkshire parsonage we have the bringing forth of the active ghosts of creative characterisation; the underpinning and vital informants of the story teller’s narrative. Interwoven into the plot are various characters from the novels of the Brontë sisters; feather and flight obsessed Cathy from Wuthering Heights ( Kayleigh Lupton), and Heathcliff and Huntingdon (the always excellent Damian Frendo). Steve Herring is most effective as Mr Bell Nicholls, the unexpected love element in the latter days of Charlotte Brontë’s life. Herring also plays Jane Eyre’s amour Rochester with an edge of resigned melancholy.
Aside from the leads, the most striking performance is by Cibele Ponces Alvarenga as Bertha, the first and severely mentally ill wife of Mr Rochester in the novel, Jane Eyre. Cibele Ponces Alvarenga imbues her choreographic interpretation of Bertha with a startlingly unearthly reading of the deeply affected and abjectly abandoned woman. Her dance- like body work is most pitiable to witness and yet at times has a poignancy that illustrates a ‘deep feeling’ or strong notion of female creative guru to Charlotte Brontë. Her depiction is that of a highly focussed vital force that is captivating to witness in its disparate transition from despair to sexually charged joy. These scenes do indeed, take us beyond and below the surface of this gripping theatrical tale.
Completing the visual impression of the play is the bookshelf inspired set by Linda Croston and the complex lighting design (as it switches effortlessly from short scene to short scene) by Simon Carter and projections by Matthew Allcock.
This thoroughly researched (plus authentic photographic visuals from the actual home of the Brontë family) runs at The Lace Market Theatre until Saturday 20th November and is part of the ‘never performed before at The Lace Market’ season.
Photo Credits: Grace Eden.