The Brontës are arguably the most well known family of authors; Jane Eyre is proposed to be the most read book in the English language, second only to the Bible. Polly Teale asks, and endeavours to answer, the question of how three Yorkshire sisters were able to change the voice of literature and make a space for female authors in a time of social upheaval and Victorian housewifery. Teale, alongside director Nancy Meckler and the Shared Experience group, produce a series of flashbacks, imaginings and movements, combining thought, text and body to glimpse the lives of ordinary but mysterious literary artists.
In a set that comprises a backdrop with a single door, a wooden table and four chairs, the story the Brontës is unraveled; how they grew up in isolation on the Yorkshire moors, and how they came to develop such gripping and exposing characters in their novels.
The three sisters have diverse personalities that are evident in their novels. Therefore it is vital that the actresses do them justice and provide an idea of what life was like for them – the casting of Brontë does not fail.
Kristin Atherton plays the eldest, Charlotte, and is the maternal influence in the home, pushing back her yearning for a fuller life which is only visible through her visions of the madwoman. Shifting between youthful excitement and desperation at her younger sisters, Atherton is a tired and worn down Charlotte, searching for something just out of her Victorian mindset, releasing her thoughts through her pen.
As anyone who has read Wuthering Heights can imagine, Emily Brontë is one of the most mysterious of authors, as such a young woman was able to write a tale of the darker side to human nature. Elizabeth Crarer plays Emily carefree and lively, as one would imagine her creation Cathy, but weighed down by the disappointments of life till she becomes a tortured, unpredictable woman longing to return to her childhood. Without corset or petticoat, Crarer captures the essence of dissatisfaction and the way in which her raw novel was bred out of an uncontainable thirst for something more.
Probably the least known sister is Anne Brontë, the youngest of the family and the one whose works had a more political and social edge to them. Nevertheless, Flora Nicholson is beautifully innocent in the way she tries to keep her family together, too young to have yet been poorly effected by the world, but wise enough through her own personal losses to recognise the importance of strength. Never quite losing that childish air, Nicholson is light and endearing against the darkness of the Industrial Revolution.
The two male actors, Mark Edel-Hunt and Stephen Finegold, are strong supporters as brother, literary protagonist, father and husband. Of note is Edel-Hunt’s scene as the drunken Branwell Brontë – after reading an article in the Guardian about how best to act drunk I was delighted to see him stagger through the door. With just the right balance of slurred words and truthful lines, he manages this scene well without being overbearing or clichéd.
Teale ingeniously decided to mix fictional and real characters, bringing the mundane, domestic lives of the three women alive as it would have been in their extraordinary minds. France McNamee plays Cathy Earnshaw, Emily’s wild heroine from Wuthering Heights, as well as a madwoman who expresses Charlotte’s hidden desires as well as being a reference to Mrs. Rochester from Jane Eyre. McNamee is absolutely stunning in her portrayal of these imagined people, having only a brief moment onstage to establish complex and intricate characters. Her command of the stage space is extraordinary and captivating in both her projection and passionate dance sequences. For a part that is meant to be on the periphery, McNamee does well to steal the limelight every now and then and breathe life into the characters.
It is not often that the authors of classics are exposed and their lives placed on stage, but this production gives a unique insight into the possible inspirations for some of the world’s greatest pieces of literature. Heart-warming, unexpected and diverse, Brontë takes the best texts, adds some innovative physical theatre, and provides the audience with both an intellectual and emotional journey that is truly captivating.
Brontë is playing at the Richmond Theatre until 14th May. For information and tickets, see the website here.