Friday 13 May 2011

Theatre Review: Brontë (Richmond Theatre)

Shared Experience’s Brontë was first staged in 2005, in a production directed by the play’s writer Polly Teale. The show now returns in a new, totally re-cast, touring production, helmed by the co-artistic director of Shared Experience, Nancy Meckler. The play follows Teale’s two previous engagements with Brontë-related literature: she adapted Jane Eyre for the stage in 1996 and subsequently wrote a play about Jean Rhys (After Mrs. Rochester), whose Wild Sargasso Sea was of course inspired by Jane Eyre .

Brontë’s focus is the personal and creative lives of Emily, Charlotte and Anne themselves. Unsurprisingly, though, Shared Experience don’t take a traditional or straightforward biographical approach here. Rather, the company brings its distinctive physical and design aesthetic to the show, attempting to enter the inner worlds of the sisters by combining scenes that focus upon their everyday, domestic life with fantasies, memories and dramatised sequences from their novels, constantly blurring the boundaries between the real and the imagined. Indeed, the production sets itself up as a subjective investigation into the Brontës’ lives, opening with three contemporary women (Elizabeth Crarer, Kristin Atherton, Flora Nicholson), speculating about how “three Victorian spinsters living in isolation on the Yorkshire Moors” came to write literature of such passion and enduring power. Following this brief prologue, the three women take up their costumes to transform themselves into the sisters and to both dramatise and comment upon their story.

Thus Brontë may be viewed as, in Teale’s terms, “a response to the Brontë story not a piece of biography.” The production’s highly selective and impressionistic approach won’t be to all tastes and there are moments when the show seems to be straining for theatrical effect. The transitions between the sisters’ real and imagined worlds are sometimes marvelously fluid, especially in those scenes that show Emily tenderly interacting with her creation, Cathy (Frances McNamee), from Wuthering Heights. But at other times they’re abrupt and jarring: particularly problematic are the appearances of Jane Eyre’s Bertha (McNamee again) as an endlessly cavorting and gyrating projection of Charlotte’s animalistic id; these scenes feel crude and heavy-handed. The rhythm of the piece is not always satisfying: characters announce their departures only to return again in the next scene, and some sequences – such as Charlotte’s encounter with Heger, the Belgian teacher she loved – seem to come from nowhere. (Heger is played by Stephen Finegold, who, in a psychologically astute bit of multi-casting, also portrays the sisters’ father, Charlotte’s husband, and Rochester in the dramatised Jane Eyre scenes.)

The great strengths of the production lie in its nuanced exploration of the various functions that writing served for the three sisters, and also in its very fine performances. Crarer beautifully invests Emily the tormented genius with a streak of self-reliant strength, and Kristin Atherton’s censorial Charlotte succeeds in generating sympathy against the odds, while Flora Nicholson is vivid as the eager, socially conscious Anne. And Mark Edel-Hunt gives a lively and finally touching account of Branwell, the spoilt brother whose taken-for-granted privileges are criticized by Charlotte in one of the show’s most memorable scenes. The production is also strong on the social context of the sisters’ lives, even as it’s played with a defiantly contemporary attitude that subverts period drama cosiness. Also noteworthy is the atmospheric sound and lighting design by Peter Salem and Chahine Yavroyan

Despite its bitty structure, Brontë proves a rewarding evening overall, with striking moments of beauty and insight that compensate for its more awkward, forced transitions. Often, it’s the quietest moments that resonate most strongly, such as Emily’s subversive appraisal of the sisters’ position: “Perhaps we should be grateful for obscurity. For invisibility. Nothing was expected of us. Whatever we did was our secret, was our own.”
The production runs for 2 hours 30 mins. Further information at the Shared Experience website.

Reviewed for The Public Reviews

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