Friday, 30 September 2016

Review - Villette at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Review by Richard Wilcocks
Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, which was recognised by knowledgeable readers in nineteenth century Brussels as a close parallel for what actually happened when its author was teaching cosseted Catholic girls in the Pennsionat, is not generally esteemed for its plot, but for its exquisite characterisations and the way the shy, repressed, unmarried and fiercely Protestant central character Lucy Snowe gives vent to her thoughts and emotions throughout the novel. It is outstanding in Victorian literature for its psychological intensity and its honest scrutiny of female consciousness.

There are few dramatic possibilities in it, compared to Jane Eyre, but it has, apparently, been successfully adapted for radio. Stage and film versions have been sparse in number and unmemorable. Therefore, the version scripted by Linda Marshall-Griffiths for the Courtyard Theatre of the West Yorkshire Playhouse as part of its current Brontë Season was keenly anticipated by many, especially people who have read the novel. On the night I saw it, most of the Parsonage staff were there. There had been a few clichéd journalistic comments previously along the lines of “Brontë purists might not like this…” because this version is set in the future. The summary of the new version sounded promisingly interesting, and Linda Marshall-Griffiths is undoubtedly bold, brave and imaginative. In her own words:

“In re-imagining Villette, I asked myself who is the invisible woman now, who would she be in the future? I began thinking of a clone – easily disposed of, created like a worker-ant, identical and made purely to work. A clone that survived a pandemic that killed her two identical sisters. As Charlotte Brontë used to catch glimpses of what she thought was her sisters in paintings and crowds, my Lucy Snowe is haunted by her own face and the past that both terrorises and holds her. I moved the setting of Villette onto an archeological dig in the future. Lucy Snowe flees her past to become part of a team looking for the bones of the Lady of Villette – a survivor herself, she may hold the key to an ebola-like virus…”  (from the YYP leaflet)

In the event, this play would have been most easily followed by those Brontë purists, the ones in spotless white perhaps, the ones who could compare the characters in the novel with those on stage and follow the storyline, which on the whole adheres to the original pattern. There are just five actors on stage (theatre economics of course), and much has been cut – inevitably. For example Ginevra Fanshawe, here ‘Gin’ (and Polly) is played by Amelia Donkor as a hedonistic dancer and slinky party-goer who prefers to go to the Day of the Dead celebrations rather than hang around in a boring laboratory.

Day of the Dead? Is there a Mexican connection? Is it a linking reference to the bones of the Lady of Villette in the onstage archeological trench? Not clear. It is just one of the things which lead to possible confusion, because the play is hard to get to grips with and occasionally incoherent. Disbelief is not easily suspended. The characters are sketchy and do not develop: Beck, for example, the equivalent of Madame Beck, Charlotte Brontë’s version of the sly wife of the man she loved, is played simply as a kind of workplace bully with an obsession for surveillance by a very under-used Catherine Cusack. Nana Amoo-Gottfried gives us the makings of a good, amiable John Bretton, and should also have been offered more material through which to display his talents.

Amelia Donkor (Gin) and Laura Elsworthy (Lucy Snowe)
After the first quarter of an hour or so, when I was wondering whether this was something out of Doctor Who, Laura Elsworthy, playing Lucy Snowe, was filling me with admiration for her strenuous efforts to portray a journey out of repression and into the realm of love, but she became wearing after a while, especially towards the end of the over-long first half, when she is placed at a raised front corner and engages directly with the audience. As an actor, she must have had some problems getting into the mind of one of three identical clones created by a scientist father (her two sisters, named Esme and Ashe, are dead) or showing that she has real sparks of humanity. Elsworthy does her best with what she is given, but her clunky, awkward utterances, her jerky movements and her lengthy agony-stricken diatribes, delivered expressionist-style, are just too much. And where did that Catholic priest come from? A dream? Mexico?

The second half gave some relief. Lucy became much more human, and the audience even laughed as she sat on a blanket and opened a picnic basket with the gauche Paul (Philip Cairns) to participate in a comically awkward conversation, perhaps the best part of the play. Neither of the characters knew what a picnic was, they had previously admitted, but the basket was to hand and they soon found out.

The admirable boldness of the playwright’s vision made this production watchable. On the night I saw it, a group of what seemed to be sixth formers were chatting noisily afterwards. They had not read the original and confessed to being confused, but they liked the play as a strange puzzle – and they were most intrigued by the enigmatic ending. It might make a good television version one day.

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