9th April 2011 (matinée)
Seeing this new production from a company of which we are longstanding fans has reminded us just how special they are. They are aptly named – the more we invest, the more richly we are rewarded.
In this production of ‘Bronte’, we are invited to re-examine, and re-experience, the Bronte myth in all its forms. Classics like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and the clergyman’s daughters who wrote them, are already well-known and characters such as Mr Rochester, Cathy and Heathcliff are archetypes, even for those who have never read the novels. Countless film and TV adaptations have grappled with these novels. Is there anything more to say?
We begin with three actresses in modern dress, strolling onto the stage while the house lights are on, as they sit down and begin reading. We wait as they gradually engage in whispered conversation, in which they contemplate what it must have been like for these Victorian women. As they speak they start to put on the long skirts and button up their blouses. The start is slow, but it is not long before we are completely in their world, conjured up in the form of a single table, chairs, and a box to represent the coal fire. The words and imagination of the actors (and the audience) do the rest.
In this play, we get to know each sibling, each with their own internal struggles, and the beliefs which they bring to their art – Charlotte (Kristin Atherton), openly ambitious and longing for fame, Emily (Elizabeth Crarer), mortified at the idea that anyone would even find out who she is, and Anne (Flora Nicholson), fired up by the desire to make the world better through her words. Meanwhile, Branwell (Mark Edel-Hunt) tries hard to make his way in the world, whilst sensing that he is unworthy of the privileges his sex gives him. Whilst we see the childhood bonds between the siblings early on, it is the conflicts, internal and external, that are one of the most interesting aspects of the play – we start to imagine what it must have been like in this tiny, isolated parsonage, making brief forays out into the world but always longing for home even when home meant conflict and pain at times.
Along with this richly textured portrayal of the family, we are simultaneously invited into the world of their imagination as they write, often in the most difficult circumstances. The image of Charlotte using a tiny shaft of light to write as she sits with her recuperating father is particularly striking. ‘What are you writing?’ is a frequent question, leading to startlingly poetic extracts from the novels and poems, sometimes spoken simultaneously by author and character, as Frances McNamee blends seamlessly into the action embodying in turn both Kathy from Wuthering Heights, and Bertha Rochester from Jane Eyre. The actors playing Branwell and Mr Bronte (Stephen Finegold) also play their parts in the fictional action, just as the siblings did when they were young. The constant interplay between real life and imagination is brilliantly and subtlety handled by writer Polly Teale. The connections are not always the most obvious ones, as in the moment when Charlotte receives a late proposal of marriage, which she accepts whilst warning her future husband that she doesn’t love him and will ‘expect little’. As soon as he leaves the house, Bertha Rochester storms onto the stage and the two of them dance for joy together.
The story of the Bronte siblings is a fascinating and tragic one which is beautifully and movingly told here. There are too many moments of insight and quiet brilliance to mention. Just as the sisters use their writing to temper the tragedies of the real world, Shared Experience take us to the depths of despair as we witness the sufferings of the family, whilst lifting us back up with the consolation of the art that they left behind, and some insight into the sacrifices they made for it.
The acting is universally outstanding, as is Nancy Meckler’s direction. We have already expressed our outrage at the 100% cut in Arts Council funding that Shared Experience have received. It is a very sad day for theatre in this country when a wonderful company such as this, with such an impressive track record, is not considered worthy of public funding.