I have not, to date, read anything by the Brontë sisters, so it was almost inevitable that Brontë was going to at least be informative. I went to a single-gender school, and, growing up, we read ‘blokey’ literature like Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ and Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, the sort of literature with men at the heart of their stories – the stories themselves written by men. I actually did try once to borrow a copy of ‘Wuthering Heights’ from the school library out of interest, but was dissuaded by a senior teacher who suggested I read something more ‘suitable’ instead. Looking back, it is slightly extraordinary that attitudes towards women writers persisted until well within living memory.
The play concedes quite early on that what is being presented may not necessarily be entirely accurate. When Alan Bennett wrote The Lady in the Van, it was subtitled ‘A Mostly True Story’; Polly Teale’s Brontë fits that description too, or so we are led to believe. We begin at an almost breakneck pace, and it is something that simply cannot be sustained. After some highly descriptive details are almost rushed out, the play slows down to a more comfortable speed, which would have been quite acceptable, except this play kept slowing down to the point that I was, regrettably, wishing the show to just end.
While there is no requirement for a show to have its plot revealed in strict chronological order for it to be a success, there is such a thing as bouncing around too much. It took a copy of the script for me to properly establish the meandering direction of the play. I do not wish to mark down this production’s director, Simona Hughes – I am talking about the script itself and the accompanying stage directions. “Lights change. 1833.” Two pages of dialogue later: “Lights change. July 1845.” A further two pages later: “Lights change. 1835.” But as the costumes don’t change, the set doesn’t change, there is no sign or projection to indicate the change of year (this isn’t Les Miserables), and the characters remain in position, how could an audience reasonably be expected to know the dialogue isn’t following a linear progression?
Some of the subtler references to characters created by the Brontës were rather lost on me, likely to be down to my unfamiliarity with the source material. For this reason, some scenes ended up being of more interest than others. But there was another problem: I was not quite able to keep up with who was playing what character throughout. Despite the cast list in the show’s programme implying the contrary, all of the actors play multiple roles, and not just some.
The accompanying music, while pleasant to listen to, did not sit well with the underlying tensions inherent in the play, and thus, despite its soothing and calming nature, became increasingly irritating, given the strong depiction of the struggle of country living in the nineteenth century. I would have expected the music – mostly played between scenes, but sometimes during them, and occasionally threatening to drown out characters still speaking – to have more of an emotional impact. For me, the tepid melodies were neither here nor there.
The near-constant flitting about between decades in the play even extends to at least one character being very much dead in one scene, only to be very much alive in the following one. As a whole, the play didn’t engage very much, and it became difficult to feel much empathy for any of the main characters as their futures and how they met their ultimate endings were revealed. I’m not blaming the cast, though: they did what they could with what they had, and they are to be commended for that.
An ambitious play, perhaps too ambitious, it was given a good shot by the Tower Theatre Company in a faithful rendering that could have done with some trimming. I could not, to be fair, fault the set or the way in which it is used. And to hear a few paragraphs from the Brontë canon of literature, sometimes just spoken out but sometimes performed with pathos and credibility, was a satisfying experience.
Review by Chris Omaweng
April 21st 2016 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë, the oldest of the legendary Brontë sisters. Celebrated up and down the country in various ways, The Tower Theatre is proud to celebrate this by bringing Polly Teale’s play Brontë, to Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate for six performances running over five days,
The year is 1845 and the once prodigal son, Branwell Brontë, returns home in disgrace, dismissed from his job and plagued by alcohol and drug addiction. Meanwhile his sisters endure their restricted and isolated existence by channelling their intellect, frustrations and buried desires into the creative furnace of their writing. The external lives of the Brontë sisters were dreary, repetitive, uneventful, and yet their inner lives were the opposite. Brontë dramatises the collision between drab domesticity and unfettered, soaring imagination, showing us the real and internal worlds at once and making visible what is hidden inside. The familiar factional characters from their novels are woven into the action, haunting their creators and serving as embodiments of all that is supressed. While the sisters cook and clean and sew there exists another world full of passion and fury.
Brontë is an ingenious and gripping interpretation of the Brontë family legend. We are, and always have been, fascinated by the Brontës. They broke the mould against all odds. They broke it and yet they were made by it. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is believed to be the second-most read book in the English language (after the Bible) and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights remains one of the great literary creations of all time and is still a bestseller. Anne Brontë’s The Tennant of Wildfell Hall has been slow to garner the recognition it deserves, but is now hailed as a visionary and feminist novel.
This masterful play invites us not only to imagine how it was possible for these obscured women to produce such extraordinary work, but to extend our intrigue beyond the achievements of the sisters, to the significant failures of their brother. In exploring this enmeshed sibling dynamic she asks us to consider whether the invisability the sisters enjoyed was in fact a better condition for them to develop as artists than the attention and expectation lavished on the only son.
Polly Teale’s Brontë explores and celebrates the reasons why hundreds of years later we are still so drawn to this family, their stories and their characters.
by Polly Teale
Directed by Simona Hughes
Tuesday 5th – Saturday 9th July
The Tower Theatre performing Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate