Unquiet Slumbers: The Haunting of Emily Bronte does not leave too much to the imagination with its name. This is a two hander that follows Wuthering Heights’s heroine Catherine Earnshaw, played by Rebecca Jones, meeting her creator – writer Emily Brontë (Harriet Wakefield). Whether this is a fully-fledged ghost story, or a psychological examination of Emily’s unravelling mental and physical state, is more ambiguous. Catherine even defines herself in different forms in the play, sometimes as a ghost, sometimes as a figment of Emily’s imagination.
Catherine seeks to understand herself with help from the mind that created her – but this story actually allows writer Sam Chittenden to peel back layers of the enigmatic figure of Emily Brontë. Identity is a huge theme of this play, and Wakefield’s performance helps to create a believable and sympathetic version of Brontë who struggles to identify herself. She fights against any attempts that Catherine makes to link them – but also concedes they share a soul, and that she is constantly re-writing herself in her works.
Equally, Jones does a great job of stamping some reality on the ghostly Catherine. Though she remains a cloudy figure straddled between death and literary imagination, Catherine undoubtedly gains an autonomy through the piece; she shapeshifts into a figure independent of Brontë. She hints at an existence beyond her life in pages, and as Emily’s presence fades with her health, Catherine becomes ever more vivid. Both actors portray this transition beautifully – their distinct physicality combining with the excellent script.
The relationship between a creative and their creations is often central to Unquiet Slumbers. It links constantly to other themes – such as identity, death, and sexuality – both for Catherine to Emily, and Emily to God and her family. The depiction of the relationship between art and existence spawns some of the strongest writing in the play.
There are some occasional pacing issues, particularly during transitions. In one scene, Emily banishes Catherine from visiting her again but, in the next, she’s begging for her return with no clear reason for the change of heart. I would also add that some of the breaks between scenes feel a moment too long. Despite these small blips, Unquiet Slumbers is mostly exquisite – oozing with thoughtful and resonant writing which is delicately handled by adept performances.
The staging is also effective – Emily’s room feels like a real and authentic space which both characters interact with. Dark lighting lends to the atmosphere, as does the sound – a mixture of natural sounds and non-diegetic music that doesn’t interfere but rather dances on the edge of the story. Much like the tantalising moor outside Emily’s window, it is just out of reach.
The socially distanced seating makes it a little difficult to see all of the cramped stage and sometimes results in long stretches where one of the characters is completely out of sight. But that is merely an unfortunate effect of the circumstances, and this is at least mitigated by the fact that the small audience and performance area adds to the intimacy of the show.Unquiet Slumbers this is a wonderful play whose exceptional execution is a result of an incredibly innovative creative team.
Unquiet Slumbers: The Haunting of Emily Brontë is playing at the Brighton Fringe until 1 November, for tickets and more information see Brighton Fringe’s website.