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A CurtainUp London London Review

I have had dreams in my life that have gone through me, like wine into water, and altered the colour of my mind.
---- Emily Brontė
Fenella Woolgar as Charlotte Brontė
(Photo: Robert Day)
In Brontė Polly Teale returns to much the same territory as her wonderful production of Jane Eyre with which Shared Experience delighted audiences in the late 1990s. This time, instead of dramatising a novel, Teale examines the lives of the three remarkable Brontė sisters who lived in a Yorkshire Parsonage and produced two of the greatest novels of all time.

Teale's last foray into biography was the thrilling After Mrs Rochester about the life, writings and inspiration of Jean Rhys whose novel Wide Sargasso Sea described Bertha Rochester's life before she married Rochester. Shared Experience are best known for their blend of physical theatre and text based plays. Brontė is probably the least physical of their recent plays and the most dependent on text.

The play opens with three actors shedding their twentieth first century clothing to don that of the nineteenth century whilst giving us a wealth of biographical detail, for instance, "We had no mother, that is why our books are about orphans". This introduction also gives demographic information about Yorkshire, the Yorkshire Moors area around Leeds and Bradford 150 years ago, the area which is known today as Brontė Country. The actors refer forward to their literary reputations. Emily (Diane Beck) tells us that only one novel of hers survived. Ann (Catherine Cusack) tells us that she is studied only in conjunction with the other two. Charlotte (Fenella Woolgar) talks about what it is to be ugly and what contrast there is in between life for a man and life for a woman. Immediately the differences between the two main sisters start to emerge. Emily writes to escape, to be beyond herself, Charlotte craves celebrity.

Bramwell (Matthew Thomas) their brother starts as a playmate in the recreation of childhood scenes where he leads the girls in fantastic adventures on the high seas. Sadly he ends his life as a failure in every aspect, dissolute and addicted to laudanum, in debt and terribly disappointed. The other male influence is that of their father, the Reverend Patrick Brontė (David Fielder), a typical and dour Victorian patriarch. Two characters, from their novels, feature strongly, both played by Natalie Tena: Bertha Rochester and Catherine Earnshaw. The Bertha character in a red Spanish dress, with lots of writhing passion, we have met twice before in Shared Experience's productions of Jane Eyre and After Mrs Rochester.

The ensemble performances are good and I was genuinely moved by the emotional high and excitement when the girls learn that their books are to be published, when they go to London and Charlotte meets William Thackeray and this play probably represents many months of detailed research by Polly Teale. However, while it is true that the story is interesting, I think the production is probably around half an hour too long for such a wordy subject.

The dramatisation of Cathy and Bertha seems less important dramatically and rather contrived. There is also much social commentary, details about life working in the mills where "a boy will spend all day making cloth but barely have a shirt to his name" It probably would have worked better in a film where one would have had the opportunity to film outside on the moors where Cathy and Heathcliffe still call to each other. The set is interesting, but more symbolic than real. A backdrop of two levels of tall dark windows, basically the faēade of the parsonage, allow the girls to sit on sills and gaze out, beautifully lit for changes of atmosphere. On the side walls are peeling, tiled, pen and ink drawings of Victorian women by Paula Rego and the kitchen furniture is simple and plain and wooden. A glimpse of Charlotte with her tutor and his remarkable advice gives us the inspiration for their incredibly creative writing. The mystery remains as to whether Emily's other works, if they existed, were destroyed by Charlotte after Emily's death.

Written and directed by Polly Teale

Starring: Fenella Woolgar
With: Diane Beck, Catherine Cusack, David Fielder, Natalia Tena, Matthew Thomas
Design: Angela Davies
Movement: Leah Hausman
Lighting: Chris Davey
Composer and Sound: Peter Salem
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 050 0511 at the Lyric Hammersmith until 26th November 2006, then at The Lowry, Salford 29th November to 3rd December Box Office: 0870 787 5790
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 3rd November 2005 performance at the Lyric Theatre, King Street, Hammersmith, London W6 (Tube: Hammersmith)
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©Copyright 2005, Elyse Sommer.
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