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The Theatreguide.London Review


Tricycle Theatre   Spring 2011

Polly Teale's 2005 drama for Shared Experience is a meditation on the novelist sisters of Haworth, on what made them write and how their writing reflected their personalities.

Her hypotheses are sometimes contentious, sometimes enlightening, but always interesting.

But 'interesting' is not the same as 'engrossing' or 'involving', and a thought-provoking literary analysis is not the same as a successful play.

In reviewing Teale's similar play about Jean Rhys a few years ago, I said it felt like the staged seminar paper of a really clever postgraduate student in English literature, and Bronte has much the same quality.

I'm sure the seminar discussion following the paper would be lively and stimulating, just as your post-play conversations might be, but they would be about literary theory and not drama, intellectual in nature, not the result of emotional involvement in a created reality.

Teale focuses, reasonably enough, on Charlotte and Emily. She imagines Charlotte to be conservative and conventional at heart, a woman who would much rather have been a totally ordinary wife and mother.

She's haunted onstage by her creation, the first Mrs. Rochester - not, as most modern feminist critics read the madwoman in the attic, as a symbol of male fear of female sexuality, but as Charlotte's own fear of any and all passions and unconventional impulses within herself.

In contrast, the more rebellious Emily is haunted by her Cathy Linton, representing the free spirit who destroys herself by choosing the conventional path.

Charlotte's longing to be more ordinary, Emily's repugnance at the small concessions to convention she must make, and Charlotte's distaste for Emily's less restrained and self-censored writing make up pretty much all the characterisation and drama in what is otherwise just a mix of biography and lit crit.

The single moment most likely to produce an emotional response comes near the end, when we are told that Charlotte's prudery led her probably to destroy a novel Emily left behind when she died and certainly to censor and rewrite her posthumous poetry.

But even that is more an intellectual reaction than a gut one, and however much Kristin Atherton as Charlotte and Elizabeth Crarer as Emily may work to express artistic and spiritual torments, they too rarely come alive as characters and not just biographer's conjectures.

Flora Nicholson as Anne is allowed little more than the occasional comment on how rough poor people's lives are, to remind us that her novels have a social awareness her sisters' don't. 

Frances McNamee flits in and out as Cathy and Mrs. Rochester, and Mark Eden-Hunt as brother Branwell and Stephen Finegold as father Patrick do what they can with what are not imagined beyond stock figures.

Nancy Meckler's direction should feel more fluid than it does, moving from scene to scene with little more than the repositioning of a table and a couple of chairs.

But she punctuates each scene with a slow blackout, as if to mark the making of an analytical point and announce that the next scene will begin a new chapter in the seminar paper.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Bronte - Tricycle  Theatre 2011


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