along to see Brontë at the West Yorkshire Playhouse wondering
if there was actually any more to be said about Haworth's famous
literary family to find that very question was raised at the beginning
of the play. The actresses playing the three sisters come on to
the stage in modern dress and as they put on their plain Victorian
garb to become Charlotte (Fenella Woolgar), Emily (Diane Beck) and
Anne (Catherine Cusack) they look back on their characters from
a 21st century perspective.
Catherine Cusack, Diane Beck and Fenella Woolgar at Haworth
they are amongst the most studied and talked-about writers ever
- even the doodles in the margins of the work they wrote as children
have been the subject of speculation. Anne tells us that for most
people she only exists as a sort of footnote in the lives of her
more celebrated sisters. We are told that, although we can't be
certain, it is more than likely that Emily had completed a second
novel at the time of her death which must have been destroyed by
Charlotte who also made radical changes to both her dead sisters'
poems before sending them for publication. But, the actors ask,
how did these women who had no sexual experience, who were probably
never even kissed, come to write like this?
of the answer, Teale seems to be saying, may lie with their brother
Branwell. As women of their class at that time, their lives were
very confined - women could not even join the local library, even
after it had added copies of Jane Eyre to its collection! Branwell
could go places and do things they couldn't do.
play begins when Branwell (Matthew Thomas) returns home in disgrace
after he has been discovered having an affair with the mother of
the boy he is tutoring, the somewhat aptly-named Mrs Robinson. Today
Branwell may be seen somewhat romantically as yet another guy who
lived "too fast" and died "too young" (a feeling
perhaps reinforced by the preservation of his favourite chair in
Haworth's Black Bull pub) but in his own lifetime he was just a
argues that everybody - his father, his sisters, and perhaps most
tragically, himself - expected great things of Branwell. She comments
(in the programme for the production): "Branwell is perhaps
the most tragic figure in the play, ruined by the weight of other
people's expectations, by fear of failure, the pressure to succeed."
Some of his frustration is experienced in his relationship with
Charlotte. Closest in age, as children, they acted out the imaginary
worlds that they created together in their now famous tiny books.
As adults their relationship is marked by mutual resentment.
(Catherine Cusack) reads - many readers were shocked by her
novel The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall [(c) Robert Day]
is just a small part of one of the ideas explored in Teale's play
and perhaps that's the point - drama, if it is effective, can explore
many complex ideas in just a couple of hours. As she points out,
Charlotte never thought much of the theatre but I'm sure anyone
who goes along to see this production will have plenty to think
long after the event.
play is particularly successful in the way it shows the friction
within the family and the way in which their different characters
are manifested in their fiction. Emily espouses the world of the
imagination while Charlotte is frightened of demons within herself
which both Teale, and Branwell in the play, suggest may have more
than a little to do with her sexuality. The relationship between
the women and the imaginary worlds they created is very effectively
conveyed because, as they write, we see their alter-ego (Natalia
Tena) on stage who at various times also takes on the role of Cathy
from Wuthering Heights and "mad" Bertha from Jane Eyre.
But Charlotte is also the woman of action, the one who gets their
work published and wants to take a bigger role in the world.
in Haworth the Brontës were part of the social change going
on around them. Child mortality in Haworth was particulaly high
and they would constantly hear their father going about the burial
service just outside their window - there might be as many as four
and five a day. There was frequently trouble at the mill and the
sisters would visit families made destitute by industrial accidents
and other misfortunes. And yet, Teale argues, it was probably also
boredom that turned them to writing. Well-educated, as they went
about their routine daily-tasks they retreated into the world of
their own imaginations. Charlotte once wrote: "I can hardly
tell you how time gets on here at Haworth. There is no event whatever
to mark its progress. One day resembles another and they all have
the play Branwell is very excited when he gets a post as assistant
to the clerk at Sowerby Bridge railway station - railways are definitely
the new thing - but he is so bored he starts to drink. His sisters
later berate themselves for not showing their disappointment when
he tells them about his new job but this is because everything is
expected of him while, as one of them says, "nobody expects
anything of us." If their mother had lived longer it might
have been a bit different.
Charlotte burn Emily's book[(c) Robert Day]
probably most people who come along to a production like this must
be, at the very least, curious about the Brontës. My expectations
were heightened as soon as I entered the Courtyard Theatre and saw
how the set, designed by Angela Davies, made use of Paula Rego's
dramatic illustrations. Somehow it managed to simultaneously convey
the domesticity of Haworth Parsonage, the wildness of the moor and
the inner world of the mind. The pace and acting could not be faulted.
Despite the familiarity of the story, as brother and sisters died
one after the other and Charlotte seemingly discovered some sort
of fulfillment, not with the Mr Rochester of her dreams but with
her father's curate, this production certainly brought one or two
tears to my eyes.
as with Shakespeare, we will never be able to completely understand
what made these three Haworth sisters so different but Polly Teale
does seem to go some way towards providing a few of the answers.
Anyone interested in the Brontës should go and see the play!
However, it might have all been very different. As Emily tells us,
the publishers wanted to change the title of her novel because they
thought no-one outside Haworth would know what "wuthering"
meant. Now, Windy Heights just doesn't have the same ring to it
Brontës continues at the West Yorkshire Playhouse to September
17th 2005 and tours.