Monday, 18 April 2011

The Brontë Boy - Review

Chris Went writes:
The Brontë Boy is a production which, rather than aiming to please the purist, seeks to explore the spaces between the known facts of the Brontë story through a dramatic – at times melodramatic -  representation of Branwell’s fantasies and failures to his decline and death.  It is unfortunate that the play’s author chose to stray beyond those spaces, producing an abridged tale abounding in inaccuracies, anachronisms and outdated scholarship.  Within the framework of the plot some of this was acceptable.  Having said that, Michael Yates demonstrated his clear understanding of Branwell’s inability to function in a world in which the actual was not interlarded with the imagined.  His Branwell, played  by Warwick St John, fuses the magnificence of his fantasy life with the facts of his sordid decline so that one is forced to conclude that, from childhood, Branwell was an actor, carrying his performance of himself as he wished to be portrayed, right to the end of his life.  If Warwick St John seems too loud, too energetic in the small space of the studio theatre, that is all to the good, reflecting something of the devastating effect Branwell’s histrionics must have had within the confines of the Parsonage.

Framed as Branwell’s dream, the play takes us from his early Angrian plays with Charlotte (Melanie Dagg) through his various attempts to make a living for himself, to his last days under the influence of gin, laudanum and John Brown.  The scene in which Branwell revisits his childhood is achieved with a good deal of humour, Melanie Dagg succeeding in presenting a Charlotte who, young enough to relish, still, the battles and bloodshed, is beginning to speculate on what happens when the fighting stops.  Love, they agree, and feasts.  But, warns Branwell, there will never be peace.

Asadour Guzelian as Patrick Brontë carries an awkward part with competence.  Yates has made his Patrick a rather conventional, scripture-quoting parson with little evident warmth.  He hints at a harshness towards his son which is not apparent in any textual source.  At the same time he seeks for the causes of Branwell’s faults beyond home and family, placing the blame, finally, on John Brown and the Freemasons.

With a rare and refreshing instinct Michael Yates has chosen to ignore the accepted perceptions of Emily as shy and unpleasant, and Anne as shy and frail.  These are small parts which allow little scope for the development of character, but we are shown an Emily (Vicki Glover) who is lively and vivacious and Anne, played by Hayley Briggs, comes over as the cheeky girl glimpsed in the earliest diary papers.  It is Melanie Dagg, however,to whom the script gives the fullest opportunity.  She carries it off with absolute conviction, always in her part even when the focus of attention is elsewhere.  Her ability to portray utter, pitiful, yet understated, misery is superb.

So much of this production was so very enjoyable, but the play lost direction in Act II when the focus of attention shifted to John Brown, portrayed as Branwell’s evil genius.  Eddie Butler played Brown as a very working-class Yorkshireman complete with Leeds accent and flat cap.  As such, he was good, but he was not John Brown.  As far as is known, Branwell’s downfall had nothing to do with his involvement with the Freemasons.  John Brown may have done little to discourage his drinking habits but, probably, he had no real influence in this area.  Yates’ Brown was a man distrusted by Patrick Brontë and blamed by him for his son’s failings.  Since, in reality, this could not have been the case – Brown was entrusted with Branwell after the debacle of Thorp Green, and was one of the few witnesses at Charlotte’s wedding – the plot here is inevitably thin and confused.  Brown is made to behave in ways which would have been unacceptable not only to the Brontës but to himself: the scene in which Branwell, drunk, introduces an equally drunken Brown into the Parsonage parlour strikes a very off-key note.  Brown’s dialogue with Emily concerning “many infinities, many truths”, and his attempt to waltz with her, suggests that Yates was tempted along different plot lines, as does the closing scene in which Brown, having dug Charlotte’s grave, refers back to that moment.

In spite of the confusion introduced by Brown’s character, this was still a professional production, well directed by Colin Lewisohn and sympathetically staged, and there were many, many instances of a real understanding of difficult characters.  Particularly clever was the way in which Branwell was made to lift well turned phrases from his fiction and insert them into his letters.  Indeed, the use of the text of Brontë letters was extremely well done.
Costumes and props were simple but appropriate and stage management neat and as unobtrusive as possible within a studio setting.  The simple programme, containing synopsis and details of the actors, was refreshingly uncluttered by advertisements, but it was good to see a recommendation to visit the Brontë Parsonage Museum, with appropriate details, included in the layout.

This performance was presented by Encore Drama at The Carriageworks in Leeds on Saturday 16 April 2011. The Brontë Boy plays at The Square Chapel, 10 Square Road, Halifax, HX1 1QG on Wednesday 20 and Thursday 21 April at 8.00pm.

See Encore's trailer by clicking here.

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