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...


Anonymous said...

The character of Branwell is a travesty. Not surprised as in the first read-through people seemed to think that being in nervous breakdown was funny; if they'd been there they'd know differently.

Cornelius said...

When is it coming to London?

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of this notice. Sisters and Branwell particularly good. Barrie Rutter splendid overthetop performance. Best of all - Tabitha!

Sagan said...

Best Bronte play I have seen for years. Super review, much more detailed than most others. More like this.

Anonymous said...

There is bound to be much that is true and lively in a play which was influenced by the work of Dr Juliet Barker. I first met this lady when she was curator/librarian at the Bronte Parsonage and her enthusiasm and deep knowledge impressed me and my husband enormously. Her book The Brontes IS the definitive work on the subject. What a pity that the BS doesn't acknowledge her huge effect on the work of the society and development of the museum!

Mary Hutchings

Seventeenpoundspoorer said...

Having recently read Jude Morgan's sublime, 'A Taste of Sorrow', this play felt like a ridiculous slap in the face. Hyacinth Bucket was there for sure, accompanied by the ghost of Les Dawson and a Yorkshire relative of Mrs Overall. Why Blake Morrison didn't go the whole hog and have Charlotte, Emily and Anne singing 'Sisters' is a mystery. Nothing about it moved me. Can I have my money back, please?