The West Yorkshire Playhouse is well into its Autumn season, and is continuing to highlight the unique voices of some of Yorkshire’s finest literary craftswomen: the Brontë sisters. We’ve already seen Northern Ballet’s astonishing Wuthering Heights, which kicked the season off earlier this month. Now, in a slightly different flavour, the West Yorkshire Playhouse has brought to its stage a new adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, re-imagined by Linda Marshall-Griffiths and directed by Mark Rosenblatt.

This adaptation of Villette is set in the future, on an archaeological dig where a group of scientists (Nana Amoo-Gottfried, Amelia Donkor, Catherine Cusack and Philip Cairns) are in search of the remains of the mysterious Lady of Villette. One day, however, a girl named Lucy Snowe (Laura Elsworthy) arrives at the dig in search of a new future. The only surviving clone of three sisters in the wake of a deadly pandemic, Lucy battles with her own inner turmoil as she searches for answers.

Upon walking into the Courtyard Theatre, I couldn’t help but be in awe of Villette‘s striking set, beautifully designed by Jess Curtis. A realistic, visually pleasing sense of attention to detail permeates the border of earth and the imposing angles of steel modernity that sit centre stage. What makes Villette‘s overall visual concept more interesting is the use of multimedia, designed by Andrzej Goulding, which comes in the form of live camera feeds and projections. Topping off Villette‘s scenography are Chris Davey’s pleasant lighting design and John Harris’s atmospheric sound design. All of these production aspects combined come together to form a visually stunning, well-considered scenography.

But after the novelty of Villette‘s textured scenography wore off, I began to notice some rather grating problems with the production. Credit must be due to Marshall-Griffith for her bravery in taking Brontë’s novel so far from its original roots, even going so far as to echo Brontë’s own struggles within protagonist Lucy. But at times, the play’s fragmented structure grew confusing and repetitive – inconsistency caused it to gradually grow tiresome.

Layered over this tricky playtext are some rather conflicted performances. Elsworthy constructs a fragile, fidgety person who’s incredibly estranged from the world, and does so with a similar attention to detail as Villette‘s designers do in their vision of the play. Yet, there are times when Elsworthy’s character doesn’t seem to veer much along its trajectory, and rather than her outwardly spoken inner monologues becoming a motif, they become somewhat despondent. Accompanying this central performance are those of the rest of the company, which unfortunately don’t feel fully developed, and seem to lack the confidence and belief in the text to champion its confused cause.

A lack of dynamism and overall energy seems to plague Villette, with the performers regularly missing important beats and moments of suspended pace that would seem perfectly at home in Marshall-Griffith’s icy text, full of short sentences that offer an interesting textural landscape for director Rosenblatt to grapple with. Instead, sequences of dialogue seem rushed, and as a result, there’s a feeling of inaccessibility that prevents Villette‘s audience from trusting the path it treads.

It’s a real shame, since there’s a clear and unique concept behind this production marking the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth. The stunning set design and overall scenography showed some real promise, and suggested that Villette might have been something truly special and exciting. Instead, it becomes a piece that never quite reaches its audience and fails to guide it along a journey of love, redemption and coming to terms with the past.

Villette is playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 15 October. For more information and tickets, visit West Yorkshire Playhouse website.

Photo: Anthony Robling