Josephine Balfour Oatts talks to those behind Wasted, the new Bronte musical about its link to modern ‘celebrity’ and their hopes to inspire creativity.
The legacy of the Brontë family is arguably one of rebellion. Spearheaded by the eldest, Charlotte, the three sisters are rooted firmly in British history. With their literary works crystallised in classical education, the Brontë’s subverted the feminine expectations thrust upon them during the 19th century. With this in mind, Wasted (conceived by Carl Miller and Chris Ash) champions this intense trajectory of their personal and professional lives through the lens of gig-theatre – chiefly, but not exclusively, in the form of a rock documentary.
There is no doubting the inventiveness of the company in their account of this legendary household. “The story of the Brontë’s is one of creativity against adversity. It is about having something to say and saying it loudly”, says director Adam Lenson. His words leap off the page, the answers to our email interview glowing fastidiously. Created in 2016 for the new musical festival BEAM, the production is a hybrid of scenes and song, moving across styles typical to the 1950’s before journeying into genres popular in the present day. “It is definitely not a bog-standard musical” hints Molly Lynch, who plays Ann Brontë. The company have embraced the recent explosion that has melded theatre and live music, drawing on tools such as cabled microphones to emphasise the sisters’ strong link to their home in Yorkshire. “Our affectionate name for the onstage tangle is ‘the cable monster’ which we all now think of as the fifth member of the cast” Lenson jokes.
Performed by four actors, Wasted gives primary focus to Charlotte (Siobhan Athwal), Emily (Natasha J. Barnes), Ann (Lynch) and their brother Branwell (Matthew Jacobs Morgan). Interestingly, Ash has ensured that each character has a musical language that is unique to them. According to Lynch, this becomes more pronounced in the parallel between painting the Brontë sisters as writers, as well as depicting the women and men that are part of their personal evolution. Only Charlotte remains constant, while her siblings shift into familiar or formal figures that have played key roles across their lifetime. Also, the company have identified a link between Branwell’s substance addiction and unpredictable behaviour as similar to that of the modern ‘celebrity’. Here, pressure sees him cycle rapidly through humour and heartbreak, with their father Patrick only ever referred to as an omnipresent entity.
Lynch’s Irish timbre stirs the receiver of the telephone. “I think the way in which music is introduced and played with will surprise people” she muses, “It’s as much about the performers as it is their characters”. The cast have varied backgrounds in both music and theatre and have harnessed their own talents to fuel the spirit of the Brontë family. Any change in style is extreme – Emily’s wildness is at one point charged by beatboxing, and Ann’s feminist yet devoutly Christian temperament shimmers from country western, to more lyrical ballads. In keeping with the courage of the sisters, the production team have worked to push any creative limit to its maximum capacity. “It’s thrilling as an actor to tell the story through so many mediums”, Lynch says, happily.
The way in which the Brontë sisters triumphed against all odds has been the source of much fascination over the years. Polly Teale’s Brontë also concerns itself with symbols of female power, as well as the psychology of the characters that were inked within Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Wasted’s framework hopes to magnify these literary revolutionaries: “They were just like a group of kids jamming out in their parent’s garage, except they wrote poetry and novels and sat at one table” Lynch adds. This then, makes Rock and Roll a perfect vehicle to exorcise the angst and anarchy simmering beneath their skin, as well as a sensible method through which to embody the romantic, political and social themes present within their work.
2018 is the year of Emily Brontë’s bicentenary, “so it is the perfect time to acknowledge the genius and the foresight of these three extraordinary women” Lenson declares. In the wake of the recent feminist movements #MeToo and Times Up, a celebration of the Brontë’s can only be welcomed by this expanding ideology. “I’m hoping it will inspire people to be creative. To go home and write or paint or compose” Lenson continues. He emphasises how, at the time of their publication, the Brontë sisters were shrouded by patriarchal oppression, each without a traditional education and limited professional opportunities. Yet, their stories endure, which is hugely encouraging for 21st century audiences.
With a month long run at the Southwark Playhouse, the production creates a space for the Brontë’s to meditate on their unlikely successes – whether or not their work has been worth the struggle. Lenson is quick to counter this sense of doubt, “The effort we spend on making art is never wasted, even if doesn’t seem that way at the time”. Lynch agrees, “I hope that the production is encouraging for young girls”, she reels, signing off, “If [Charlotte, Emily and Ann] were alive today, they would have so much to say.”
Read our review of Wasted.
Wasted is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until October 6th. For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse website.