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Thursday, 15 September 2011

Review - We are Three Sisters

Photo by Nobby Clark
Richard Wilcocks writes:
Blake Morrison’s new play We are Three Sisters has opened at the Viaduct Theatre in Halifax’s Dean Clough, and will soon be touring – see the previous blog post for full details. It starts with a hymn, charmingly sung by the sisters and their brother, before the three young women make their way past gravestones to enter a  space with a dining table, where they sit at their little writing desks. Charlotte talks about the death of her mother (I remember them carrying the coffin out and the organ swirling from church and a handful of mourners, black as crows.) This, the audience might guess, is going to be another tale of woe. It is definitely not just that.

Humour is there in abundance, and funnily enough, it works. From what I remember of the last time I saw a production of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, which was used as the template, there were a few titters and no belly-laughs, but Morrison is far from slavish: he dips into the Chekhovian pot to take what he needs, and manages to find some uncanny connections between the Prozorovs and the Brontës.  This has been done before – it is highly probable that Chekhov read a Brontë biography in Russian, and directors of his play have sometimes made Brontë references, but Morrison has created something which is new and remarkable. We are Three Sisters (title taken from what Charlotte said to publisher George Smith during her trip to London revealing that the surname was not Bell) is partly a work of homage to the great Russian, but also a work of homage to Juliet Barker, who advised the playwright, who must have dipped into The Brontës frequently.

Games are played with the chronology. Although the action is in early 1848, there is a bog-burst, and the curate is a version of William Weightman, who died in 1840. There is some witty interference with historical facts as well, which adds amusing artistic verisimilitude, for example when Mrs Robinson turns up at the Parsonage along with the lovestruck Branwell, and Charlotte and Anne come across them snogging.

All of the sisters are impressively presented to us: our disbelief is truly suspended. The pillar portrait hangs above the fireplace, and the sisters on stage bear a strong physical resemblance to Branwell’s depictions, especially Emily. Sophia di Martino seems to have studied the painting carefully while psyching herself into the part, fixing her mouth to match the one in the painting. She is forthright and challenging, furiously protecting her identity, a parallel for Masha, the quick-tempered one, though Masha is the victim of an early marriage, and this Emily’s husband is all in her imagination, a man who gets so close he could be part of her, she tells us. Di Martino is particularly compelling. Catherine Kinsella’s Charlotte is maternal and caring, just like Olya over there in the Russian backwater, and her reactions to the letters which arrive from London are a joy. Significant decisions are made in London, where there are so many beautiful sights and interesting people! Rebecca Hutchinson conveys the romanticism and fading naivety of Anne with great skill, especially in her encounters with the flirty curate, a general approximation for the lovesick Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin, a character who is fond of expounding on the way the world is going, or should go, and who was played originally by Constantin Stanislavski himself. Anne is also addressed affectionately as a seagull by the doctor. A knowing wink from Morrison?

William Weightman was obviously a charmer, but his flirtations were within strict boundaries as far as we know, confined to smiles and Valentine cards. The curate here (Marc Parry) is also charming, but rather brash at times, sounding like someone with a social conscience in the twentieth century. He brings in the Chartists, who were, I suppose, well before their time. Morrison’s characterisation is perfectly logical, linking with the Year of Revolutions, and he does not push things too far by, say, mentioning Feargus O’Connor and mass demonstrations.

Patrick is sweet and bumbling, an excellent Ulster-accented performance from ex-comedian Duggie Brown, and Eileen O’Brien is simply brilliant as Tabby, the soul of Yorkshire, with a blunt manner which was very recognisable for this audience, and which raised the biggest laughs of the evening. Branwell (Gareth Cassidy) stamps around wonderfully, a spoilt puppy if ever there was one – like Andrei in the Chekhov, who brings in his love, the lower-class Natasha, to spoil the atmosphere and hound the servants.

Natasha in the Morrison is a startlingly vulgar Lydia Robinson. She is just a step or two away from Mrs Bucket, or even the Widow Twankey, but Becky Hindley pulls it off, stopping short of pantomime, truly hideous in a glaring green outfit (colour of bad luck for Chekhov) and providing a powerful contrast for the grey-clad and unfashionable sisters. She treats poor Tabby with utter contempt (A pot of tea would be nice. (To TABBY) Did you hear, tea? Don’t just stand there when I’m talking to you. Go on. Move.) Appalling!

Morrison has drafted in two characters taken from the historical records – the doctor, John Wheelhouse, and the teacher, Ebenezer Rand, well-known in Haworth in their time. Both give opportunities for memorable vignettes. They are side-characters, not all that much more than two-dimensional beings who bring the focus more strongly on to the three-dimensional principals, though the doctor (John Branwell) is given some depth, an ageing, cynical and materialistic wooer of Anne with a hipflask always at hand. He is, like the teacher, a complete Morrison invention, though he seems to come out of a Dickens novel.

Barrie Rutter is riveting as the even more Dickensian Teacher, who presses his self-published writing on everyone he converses with - true to the facts if you heard Ian Dewhirst speak during the June weekend about the many amateur – and seldom readable -  authors around in Haworth in Brontë times. This teacher is a real, Latin-quoting pedant, and I can say that I have met one just like him, larger than life, the sort of character you steer clear of at parties. The Teacher, or rather Barrie Rutter, shook my hand as I came into the theatre, along with most of the other members of the audience, because he is the director and this is Northern Broadsides, the acclaimed Northern Broadsides which gave us those terrific Wars of the Roses and which has worked with Blake Morrison before. It’s a company which stamps when others just walk, and I love that.

Chances are, this play will be around for a long time...

Book for Bonnie Greer

Afternoon Tea with Bonnie Greer and the Brontës is the title of an event which is part of the Ilkley Literature Festival. Tickets are shifting, I am told, so book yours now online here.

It takes place on Sunday 16 October at 3pm in St Margaret's Church Hall, Ilkley. Tickets are £7 - and are not available from the Parsonage. Try ringing the Ilkley box office at 01943 816714 to check availability.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Jane Eyre (2011) review

Richard Wilcocks writes:
Cary Fukunaga was obviously a tad nervous last Friday evening as he waited in the Parsonage garden, standing with dozens of others waiting for a tour of the house and an exclusive preview of his film, specially organised by the BBC. Presenter Christa Ackroyd soon put him at his ease with professional skill, planting him on a bench amongst the shrubs and asking him questions for BBC Look North. So why make another Jane Eyre movie after all those others? What’s different? This one’s such a contrast with what you’ve done before isn’t it? Your second big one? He explained everything, as he has many times before, mainly on the other side of the Atlantic, with a boyish charm and an endearing directness, but there was something extra in his voice – here he was talking to a woman who knew her stuff, at the celebrated spring, where Charlotte had actually penned the original. “I might not survive the night!” he said at the end of the interview.

He did, no problem: the overwhelming feeling from the audience in the Baptist Chapel in Haworth’s West Lane (the only local building suitable for the screening), judging from the applause and from many comments, was of approval. 

The film takes liberties, as it must, but it is loaded with respect for the original text. The adjective ‘faithful’ tends to be over-employed in these matters, but faithful it is, to the spirit of the novel. Some previous versions for the cinema have been the sort of thing to give headaches to those described as ‘purists’, for example the 1918 silent version entitled Woman and Wife in which Rochester believes that Bertha is dead until he is told the truth by Mason, who tries to blackmail him. She then drowns. Fukunaga’s version could just be considered as a very distant relative of the early versions – with spectral figures emerging from gloom – but the plot is reasonably in line with what Charlotte wrote, with a highly competent screenplay by Moira Buffini

Fukunaga says he was unaware of all other adaptations until the research period, but that he knew the Robert Stevenson/Orson Welles version well. There are a few similarities perhaps, for example in the sheer malignity of Mr Brocklehurst, but many differences: the fresh, feisty nineteen year-old Mia Wasikowska of 2011 contrasts drastically with the romantically tremulous Joan Fontaine of 1943.

Viewers who have read the book might be a little disorientated at the beginning, because the film begins with Jane’s distraught flight from Thornfield and her progress across bleak moorland until she finds refuge with St John Rivers and his sisters. The flashbacks follow – with brief but telling film space given to Lowood, though the childhood scenes were, as usual in most adaptations, sacrificed for the romance. It was clever to adopt the non-linear approach because it allows interest to be maintained right up until the end, enhances the suspense, puts St John in a significant position and “allows all the scenes to be peppered over the movie to keep them watching” in Fukunaga’s words. The director was worried about Charlotte’s final chapter, which he thought was “the weakest”. The ending he provides is appropriately brief and cameo-like, Rochester and Jane under a tree at Ferndean. All of which could be compared favourably with the previous BBC version of 2006, the very watchable television series with Ruth Wilson and Toby Stevens. This also began with disorientation – a young girl in a red flowing robe in a desert – and practically dumped the Lowood scenes, making little use of an excellent child actor – Georgie Henley.

Fukunaga’s Lowood (and, of course, Moira Buffini’s) is a convincing nightmare of physical and mental abuse, presided over by a quietly sinister, distinctly sadistic Brocklehurst (Simon McBurney) where the relationship of Helen Burns (Freya Parks) with the young Jane ( spirited performance from Amelia Clarkson) is treated sensitively. Craig Roberts’s John Reed is a credible bullying brat, and Mrs Reed (Sally Hawkins made me shudder) chipped out of a block of ice. Jayne Wisener’s Bessie is much younger and prettier than the one I had in my head, Valentina Cervi’s Bertha Mason likewise – she is no neglected horror, just a little dishevelled. Richard Mason in the form of Harry Lloyd looks way behind Rochester in years. In fact youthful looks are quite a feature, or perhaps that is just me, having formed my mental visualisations quite a few years ago.

Mia Wasikowska was an inspired choice for Jane, and Fukunaga was lucky to find the young Australian, because she catches the character’s sense of independence, quick wit, restraint and passionate intensity better than most of her predecessors. Plain she is not – at times she looks as if she has stepped out of a painting by Millais. She conveys Jane’s capacity for mental fight and her gradually emerging love with considerable subtlety, and the crisp exchanges with Rochester, intelligently selected from the original by Moira Buffini, are a delight. Her Yorkshire accent is well...nearly right, but this should not be noticed by many from outside the area. Michael Fassbender’s Rochester has just the right squire-like air about him, and does not reveal much sensitivity until he unlatches himself later – all very satisfying and... faithful. In fact, he is strikingly curt and unpleasant at first, taunting the new governess about tales of woe, when he still sees her as one of a species. The story of how his coarseness is refined by the girl from the class beneath him is beautifully told, and many hearts will race at their final togetherness. Jamie Bell’s dogmatic  St John is also convincing, and Jane must have been simply polite to have told him she wanted him as a brother rather than as a husband, because this one is only a few steps away from Brocklehurst in his enthusiastic religiosity, a kind of non-violent and less-punitive cousin.

One of the most memorable (superb as usual) performances is from Dame Judi Dench as Mrs Fairfax, who has an undebatably perfect Yorkshire accent. The character here claims not to have known about the locked-up woman being Rochester’s wife, but then who was it that warned Mason? A wide-eyed Romy Settbon Moore plays Adele Varens just as I picture her, although she could have picked up a few more words of English to prove that her teacher was effective at TEFL.

Haddon Hall in Derbyshire makes another appearance as Thornfield, and the desolate Derbyshire moors of the Peak District are crucial for the film’s atmosphere, all those greys, etiolated yellows and apocalyptic skies straight out of John Martin paintings boxed up by cinematographer Adriano Goldman, to go with Dario Marianelli’s terrific musical score. I recognised the stunning view from Stanage Edge, just outside Sheffield, where I once climbed. The darknesses in the film provide a realistic period feel. The result is reminiscent of Kubrick’s classic Barry Lyndon, in which lights and music are also exquisitely matched.  Few households of the early nineteenth century could afford constant lighting. Candles, especially those made from beeswax, were expensive.  The light in Thornfield seems to come from the windows during the day, and from candles or the fireplace at night. The scene where Jane arrives at Thornfield to encounter Mrs Fairfax takes place in deep, authentic gloom, with a floating candle flame as the only guide.

The film is in cinemas nationally in a few days’ time and should be as much of a success in Britain as in the States. Hopefully, it will also bring more visitors to the Parsonage Museum.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Jane Eyre movie - Focus Features

The link to BBC Look North seems to have expired..

This one still works - it's 'everything you might want to know' about the film.

Jane Eyre screening in Haworth

We watched it yesterday evening - and met Cary Fukunaga the director, who travelled to Haworth specially. A full report and review will appear on this blog very soon.

In the meantime, here is the BBC Look North report, which won't be available for long:

The Brontës and the Bible - Conference Report

Maddalena De Leo writes:
The Brontë Society Conference was held this year at Homerton College, Cambridge from Friday 26 to Sunday 28 August. Its theme was the Bible and its formative effect on the language and religion of the Brontë family. This was particularly appropriate as 2011 marks the four hundredth anniversary of the promulgation of the King James Bible, the book which above all others the young Brontës would have known by heart.

The talks were opened on Friday afternoon by two famous Brontë scholars  - Tom Winnifrith and Christine Alexander - and concerned Patrick Brontë and his daughters before they began to write their novels. On Saturday morning there was a delightful Jane Eyre panel with no break for questions until the discussion period and then lunchtime talks on The Professor and Villette, finishing with Anne Brontë. The highlight was Dr. Marianne Thormahlen’s talk on Anne and her Bible.

On Sunday Emily Brontë was the subject of Michael O’Neill’s brilliant lecture: he concluded the conference speaking about her ‘visionary religion’. Unfortunately another important Brontë scholar, Dr Brian Wilkes, was not present among us due to serious health problems. In addition to the well-known speakers from all over the world, this year for the first time the Brontë Society included some young PhD students, who lectured on the chosen topic with competence and skill.

The conference venue, carefully chosen by our organizer Sarah Fermi, was the beautiful campus of Homerton College with its amenities and easy access to the centre of Cambridge. Two special treats were also arranged by her for the more than one hundred delegates present. On Friday evening Professor Donald Burrows, the renowed Hándel expert, talked about the Bible and Hándel’s Messiah also playing some short extracts on the piano. The other treat took place after the grand silver-service dinner in the magnificent Great Hall of Homerton College on Saturday when special guest Patrick Wildgust, the Curator of Lawrence Sterne’s Shandy Hall, compared the sermons of Sterne with the two known published ones of Patrick Brontë.
During the conference I took many photographs and made many videos, which will appear on Youtube in the near future. I also will compile a DVD of the whole Conference which I’ll donate to the Brontë Society. In conclusion I can say that this great Brontë religious and cultural weekend in Cambridge was for me another important occasion to meet old and new Society friends with whom to share once again a wonderful Brontë-related experience.

Below: Conference Delegates, Maddalena De Leo with Brontë Society Chair Sally McDonald, Christine Alexander: