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 Connecting professional and amateur theatre in Newbury, West Berkshire and beyond

Watermill - Brontë

15th April to 22nd May 2008.

Review from Newbury Theatre.

Synopsis: three spinsters are living with their brother and father in the North, in Victorian times. They write poems and novels. Some of them die.

If you think a party election broadcast would be more exciting, you couldn’t be more wrong. Polly Teale’s play has repressed love, sibling rivalry, passion, rejection, adultery, drunkenness, drugs – on a par with EastEnders. All that’s missing is incest and morris dancing, and I got the feeling that Branwell (the brother) had probably tried his hand at these at some point.

The Brontë sisters had a happy childhood, with Charlotte and Branwell playing imaginative games that laid the foundation for her novels, but later they struggled to make their mark in a world where the serious writers were men. Charlotte (Kristin Atherton), bound by duty and in charge of the family after her mother died, was desperate for recognition and devastated by the continual rejection of her poems by publishers. Emily (Elizabeth Crarer), private and ethereal, didn’t want fame and was content to stay at home and wander on the moors. The sisters bickered while Anne (Flora Nicholson) and Branwell (Mark Edel-Hunt) tried with limited success to hold down jobs.

The unfolding story blends with scenes from the books: Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, all of which drew on experiences from the sisters’ lives. Frances McNamee floats around in red as the mad Mrs Rochester and in white as Cathy, bringing to life the sisters’ daydreams and fantasies.

And the fantasies, and their translation into words, are what sustain the sisters in the difficult life they have to endure. Anne asks, “Why do we write? What is it for?” and Charlotte replies, “To make life bearable.”

David Fielder played several parts: the father (who must have been a great influence on his daughters and encouraged their love of literature, but here he came over as a grumpy old grouch); Rochester; the curate whom Charlotte eventually married; and Heger, the tutor whom the youthful Charlotte had a crush on.

There is a huge amount going on in this lively production, with strong performances from all the actors, directed by Nancy Meckler and it gives a fascinating insight into the short but eventful lives of the Brontë children.


Review from the Guardian.

Four stars
Where does creativity spring from? Are artists born or made? How could three lonely women living on the bleak Yorkshire moors more than 150 years ago have created some of literature's most vibrant characters in plain Jane Eyre, the mad Mrs Rochester and the passionate, untamed Cathy and Heathcliff?

Polly Teale's densely satisfying play eschews traditional bio-drama in favour of something theatrically wilder and emotionally pressing: mixing fact and fiction. Real people and characters from the novels collide in the whirligig of the imagination. "Is it true?" people will ask. The better question might be: is it emotionally true? It may be pure speculation, but it is not impossible that Charlotte burned Emily's second novel after her sister's death. We might today call that cultural vandalism; she may have called it love.

On the Watermill's suffocatingly small stage, the Haworth parsonage parlour becomes a prison in Ruth Sutcliffe's impressive, simple design, where it is the imagination, not a tiny, high window, that lets in the light. The sisters and their brother, Branwell, upon whom everybody's hopes rest, play childhood games that have no limits, creating imaginary countries and warring armies. But as approaching womanhood constricts the sisters as surely as the corsets they must wear, so freedom and the opportunity to venture into the world beyond the moors destroys Branwell, whose only legacy is his famous portrait of his three grave sisters.

The more the sisters' world telescopes down, the greater their imaginative reach, the richer their emotional hinterlands. Teale explores all this superbly in an evening that is as much sensed as it is fully known, and where the characters from the novels and the sisters themselves share the stage in a seamless melding of inner lives and outer reality.

Charlotte, painfully consumed by unrequited love, has Mrs Rochester reproachfully staring over her shoulder – as if the madwoman in the attic has already taken up residence in her psyche. The show is brilliant on sisterly affections and resentments, a relationship magnified by the smallness of their existence and the magnitude of their ambitions.

Some acquaintance with their books and the Brontë lives is necessary for full enjoyment, but even without it this would be a richly rewarding evening about the catalyst for creativity and the lure of immortality when you see death all around you. Nancy Meckler's production has cultivated vivid performances and ensures that what might, in clumsier hands, seem overwrought instead appears perfectly and passionately pitched.


Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

Curious case of the Brontës

Watermill looks at the women behind such passionate Victorian literature

Brontë, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until Saturday, May 22

As the playgoers search for their seats and rustle their fudge packets, three modern young women stroll on to the stage and chat to each other, while leafing through a pile of books on a table. Suddenly, one speaks out loud and the hubbub subsides as the audience becomes aware that the action has started.

The women are talking about the family of the Brontë sisters and, as they slip long skirts over their jeans, bodices over their tops, a shawl here and a cloak there, the audience is slowly absorbed into another world as the women gradually morph into the quintessence of Victorian maidenhood.

It is this latter fact that so fascinated the play's author Polly Teale; how could three unmarried women living a sheltered existence on an isolated Yorkshire moor, conjure up such "potent psychological portraits", to use her words, and write such passionate literature? In exploring this question, Teale presents us with scenes snatched from the life and times of the women, their brother Branwell and their country parson father. We see them making up imaginative games of adventure on the high seas as children, we watch as Charlotte nurses an unrequited love and witness how Emily finds solace for her sorrows with the untamed creatures of the wild moor.

Eventually, as the novels take shape in the women's heads, the inner fantasies of the repressed Charlotte and the brooding Emily are made flesh as Mrs Rochester from Jane Eyre, all tumbling raven curls and sensuous red velvet skirts, and the ardent Cathy from Wuthering Heights, alluring in white frills, swirl seductively around them on the stage - both parts played memorably by the beauteous Frances McNamee.

By contrast, there are no holds barred in life for their adored but spoiled and selfish aspiring painter of a brother, Branwell, who lives a life of hedonistic and sensual pleasure to the point of destruction.

As a child he figured large in their games of derring-do; as a man his trials and tribulations, debts and addictions, sexual passions and deep despair, opportunities and failures all find their way into the women's lives, imaginations and, ultimately, their writing,

The only jarring note in this beautifully-crafted piece of theatre for me, was that Elizabeth Crarer's Emily, with her short spiky hair, was a touch too anachronistically androgynous. However, that is just a small quibble in what was otherwise an absorbing, enlightening and thought-provoking evening.

If you don't already know their novels, Brontë will make you want to. If you do, it's a must.


There are reviews in The Stage ("superb production"), Marlborough People ("touching, imaginative, atmospheric and informative") and What's On Stage (five stars).