Review: Brontë at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Start a conversation about English literature with just about anyone, and it probably won’t be too long before you arrive at the Brontë sisters. Best known as the authors of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Charlotte, Emily and Anne are part of our national heritage, and yet most of us know far more about the lives of their characters than we do about the authors themselves. Polly Teale’s 2005 play Brontë aims to correct the balance, allowing us a glimpse into the remote rural life of the three sisters, and the complex family relationships that inspired the classic creations we know so well.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko
Photo credit: Robert Piwko

And it turns out there’s more than enough material here for a story all of its own. The personal and professional rivalry between Charlotte and Emily (in keeping with history, poor Anne doesn’t really get much of a look-in, and is relegated to the role of peacekeeper); the declining fortunes and eventual disgrace of their brother Branwell; the struggle to succeed as writers in a man’s world, and the sisters’ very different motivations for writing in the first place… There’s a lot to cover, and the play does so in a series of short scenes, jumping backwards and forwards in time from childhood to adulthood, and returning to somewhere in between. Each of these scenes is introduced by a change of lighting (effectively managed by Adam Taylor) and a burst of recorded string music, wherein lies my only real complaint about Tower Theatre’s production – after countless scene changes, the music does start to grate just a little bit.

That small gripe aside, the production, directed by Simona Hughes, is of the highest quality. The cast give compelling performances, in particular Joanna Nevin as the sensitive, publicity-shy Emily, and Tania Haq, who becomes more and more dishevelled as she brings to life two iconic characters – Cathy from Wuthering Heights and Bertha from Jane Eyre. The two male members of the cast also take on multiple roles with skill, and it’s here we begin to see the parallels between fiction and reality woven into Teale’s script, as the girls’ father (Martin South), whose love and approval Charlotte craves, morphs into Mr Rochester and her adored tutor Constantin Héger, while the increasingly abusive Branwell (Paul Willcocks) turns before our eyes into Heathcliff and the drunkard Arthur Huntingdon.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko
Photo credit: Robert Piwko

What’s most impressive about the production, though, is the way it recreates the isolation of the Brontës’ home on the moors. With the exception of the local curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, we never see anyone from outside the family enter the house… and nor do we leave it until very late in the play (and then only briefly). Colin Guthrie’s sound design brings the countryside to life around us, as rain pours, birds cry and wind blows. And as the sisters repeat the same tasks, day in day out – folding laundry, baking bread and caring for their elderly father, all whilst knowing that the world expects nothing more of them because they’re only women – we get a sense of the stifling atmosphere that led them to find their escape through writing.

Brontë is a fascinating true life story that puts a human face on three literary legends, and makes you want to go back and read all the novels again to look for clues you might have missed the first time. Part documentary, part drama, it touches on gender issues, family relationships and the human need to be known and admired, to leave our mark on the world even long after we’re gone.

Much like the Brontë sisters’ famous novels, it’s not a particularly cheerful tale – but then as we all know, that doesn’t necessarily prevent a story from becoming a classic.

Brontë can be seen Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 9th July 2016.

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