Friday, 13 January 2006

Mythic Power

Shared Experience's play Brontë has received much attention and many positive reviews in the last few months. This one appears in the most recent Brontë Society Gazette, which is distributed to members:

Shared Experience’s Brontë goes beyond the surface of everyday life and makes visible what is hidden: this play successfully does just what director Polly Teale intends.

Ten years ago, with Nancy Meckler, she performed the same service with her Jane Eyre. At the West Yorkshire Playhouse one evening in September I was impressed to such an extent that I felt inadequate chatting about it on Radio Leeds the following day in a four minute slot between the music requests: I was just pulling out random raisins from a very rich cake. Brontë is significantly nutritious.

Along with Paula Rego, whose images appear on the set - the facade of a burned house - Polly Teale is intrigued “by the mythic power of the mad woman, by Charlotte Brontë’s repulsion and attraction to her creation, by the mad woman’s danger and eroticism.� A central character returning, she writhes into the action from the shadows whenever approriate, grovelling, growling, slithering and crouching on the floor. A Christian whore in the tradition of Mary Magdalene perhaps, her clothing is in shades of red, just as it was in Jane Eyre.

Her accent, when she manages to gasp out a few distinguishable words, has a strong Jamaican flavour. She is the Bertha in Wild Sargasso Sea, the creole removed from respectability, the poor ghost whose life was written for her by Jean Rhys.

From the start, it is made clear that we are watching make-believe. Diane Beck (Emily), Catherine Cusack (Anne) and Fenella Woolgar (Charlotte) come on to speak to us as themselves, becoming their characters only after they have put on their corsets and dresses. In the spirit of Brecht, Shared Experience believes that the audience will become a mass of mindlessness if there is too much immersion. We must remain sharp.

Yet there is still much of the supernatural about the production, as there must be. Cathy drifting on the moor is ectoplasmically white, scattering feathers; a young Jane sees herself as a spirit in the mirror of the Red Room at Gateshead Hall; the female beast is a recurrent nightmare; the denizens of the Parsonage are constantly haunted by their creations, the mysterious threatening the rational.

Charlotte definitely burns Emily’s unfinished and unknown novel, holding the pages over a bucket. There is a hasty mention of the fact that this remains unproven. Fenella Woolgar brings out Charlotte’s practical, organisational side brilliantly, her front against what is submerged.

If forced to prise an individual from such a powerful ensemble, I would choose Diane Beck as Emily. She reinforces the established view of Emily with her need to be alone and her contempt for convention, and adds much more. I was particularly interested in her relationship with Branwell, the bringer of knowledge, carnal and otherwise. The insight was in the empathy, the lack of recoil.

Matthew Thomas’s Branwell is a slightly lovable binge drinker, forgivable in spite of his abuse of Charlotte and his describing her as a weasel. When he stands on the table wearing a green sash and shouting “Land ahoy!� we immediately recognise his early inspirational qualities.

David Fielder is very professionally versatile as Patrick Brontë, Arthur Bell Nicholls, Rochester and Charlotte’s tutor. Nicholls comes across as creepy and clumsy, a pathetic extra on the turbulent scene, almost funny.

Brontë has been cut back to the essentials: the second part is a miracle of pruning and of timing, and the result is a triumph. The production’s first tour started at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford in September and ended at the Lowry, Salford in December, but we can be sure that it will run and run.

Richard Wilcocks

(Photo of Charlotte burning Emily’s novel by Mark Pennington)

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