Brighton Fringe 2023
This is what theatre means. BLT and Nettie Sheridan strike gold with emerging talent here, starting their professional careers. It’s to Sheridan’s choreography too we owe a seamless ensemble production. Familiar BLT names blaze with a new fire and in every way there’s synergy between physical exuberance and indelible characterisation. Outstanding.
Directed and Choreographed by Nettie Sheridan, Assistant Director/Rehearsal Prompt Esme Bird
Stage Manager/Props Bradley Coffey
Set Design Construction and Painting Steven Adams, Set Construction and Painting The Cast & Crew.
Lighting & Lighting/Sound Operation Myles Locke, Original Music and arrangements/Sound Design, Liz Ryder-Weldon
Properties Gary Cook, Nettie Sheridan; Costumes Margaret Skeet, Myles Locke, Photography Miles Davies
With special thanks to Wick Theatre Company, Southwick Players, Identity Theatre, Gary Cook, Beverley Grover, Kit Ellis
Till May 27th
This is what theatre means. Those who saw Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Mill on the Floss at BLT in 2019 might know a little of what to expect. This though is wilder.
A director of Edmundson’s work, Polly Teale’s 2005 play Brontë is the last of her trilogy around this family, written (like Edmundson) with the company Shared Experience – whose style infuses this extraordinary work. Directed and choreographed by Nettie Sheridan, with assistant director Esme Bird, this is in every respect an outstanding production.
It’s no biopic, isn’t strictly chronological. Though zig-zagging through the life of the three Brontë sisters, their gifted but hopeless brother Branwell, their father and a gallimaufry of inadequate men, Teale refuses overworn cliches. You expect actors to double vocally, as if the membrane between imagining and living were suddenly too thin; author and character speak together. This is very Shared Experience; but taken here to exquisite heights. And haunting. A sixth actor interacts: a fictive woman representing two characters whose actor’s physicality is a highlight.
Beginning with three contemporary women who contemplate the three sisters, they don early Victorian attire, become the wild trio, at play with brother Branwell, presided over by stern Patrick Brontë (Steven Adams’ first frocked-coated role, sternness and stoicism melting into grief), who reminds us his surname was Brunty, an Irish peasant farmer’s son whose father propelled him to Cambridge, though not a genteel living.
Fluidity of scenes is matched by brushing the imagined: Ella Jay Morley’s wild Catherine Earnshaw – and just once writhing, biting Bertha Rochester – starts doubling, almost taunting Emily Brontë (Polly Jones) who then morphs into comforting Nelly Dean. First both speak the same lines, then Emily absorbs herself into consolatory Nelly.
Jones’s Emily is memorably uncompromising, physically more gestural than her sisters but apart; passionate but fiercely private, continually challenging Charlotte’s authority, confiding pointedly in Anne. Then finally icily withdrawn, accelerating tuberculosis by catching cold repeatedly, starving herself to death. Perennial outsider to her family, she bitterly relates what happens to her legacy, her and Anne’s poems.
Morley a recent graduate is startling. Pulsing with kinetic energy and truth she literally launches herself into roles, rather like Emily’s hawk: whether as Catherine on the moors, a wilding self even beyond Emily, or later as Bertha Rochester, almost unhinged and violent, each contained within a power always about to break out. Vocally Morley’s mesmerising too.
It’s a technique used throughout. Emily’s siblings experience the same fictive epiphany. Charlotte Brontë (Joanna Ackroyd), contained, brilliantly uptight yet tremulous with contained passion; and Anne Brontë (Lois Regan) who uncannily inhabits the author’s radicalism disguised in brisk practicality, and peace-making gentleness.
Teale’s also introduced untrustworthy modesty. Anne’s been reappraised. So forget her fourth-wall declaration at the start that she’s just the “background” novelist; her two novels are now accorded major status. One of many flashes of humour sees Anne deal with the publisher’s wanting her to change her novel’s title to Windy Hall.
Charlotte and Anne morph into characters Jane Eyre and Helen Huntingdon respectively. Each though is haunted by Steven Adams’ adamantine red-waistcoated Edward Rochester, and Joseph Bentley’s abusive drunk husband from Wildfell Hall, Arthur Huntingdon, bunched and viscerally nasty here. Then in Jane’s case by Morley’s Bertha too, writhing disturbingly out of Adams’ hands, hinting at pleasures long-denied, not excluding terrible neglect.
The familiar Brontës’ story is etched in lightning-flashes: Teale wisely dwells more on internal conflicts, dynamics, fourth-wall ironies.
Patrick’s hopes centre round his only son. Branwell Brontë (Joseph Bentley) was gifted. As an artist excellent at caricature and sometimes serious portraits, but most of all (incidentally) as translator of the finest Horace in English (The First Book of Odes) in the 19th century, and of those poems, perhaps ever. But he lacked his sisters’ – and Horace’s – concentration, obsession, and originality. And – fatally – knew it. Bentley’s performative mix of high spirits: dancing on tables, hinting a bipolar wildness, his physically inhabiting drunkenness and delirious rage, is possibly the finest set of performances from this gifted actor I’ve seen: alongside a sinewy glowering Heathcliff Earnshaw and sneering, vicious Huntingdon.
Both Bentley and Adams give the performances of their lives so far. Bentley’s extraordinarily physical. Adams as Patrick Brontë – latterly on walking stick – unleashes glowering rages as well as the stoicism we’ve seen, and as Rochester bears his blind pride. As Constantin Heger Adams finds a vivid moment as like an intellectual cattle-prod he goads Charlotte into describing what’s unique about clouds she sees, yet blank to her passion. As Arthur Bell Nichols Adams is wholly other: a hesitant, stammering bumbler well aware he’s aiming way above his grey-grade. The proposal scene with Ackroyd ripples with comic pathos.
Steven Adams provides a versatile set, with a projection of a hawk (very Kes) on occasion, as Emily tames one. The schoolroom and kitchen are suggested with a grey/brown scheme: bookshelves stage right with tables and books. A ramshackle but richly-imagining parsonage emerges. Most striking is the suggestion of naked brickwork, gleaming charcoal, rather like the Donmar’s light grey. It’s partly to project, partly to underscore the bleak moor-skirted world, where Myles Locke’s lighting (pinpoint and impressive) and soundscape keens winds. Liz Ryder-Weldon’s original violin compositions haunt us into Haworth. Locke’s and Margaret Skeet’s costumes notably sketch the essential in quick-change characters.
BLT and Sheridan strike gold with emerging talent here, starting their professional careers. It’s to Sheridan’s choreography too we owe a seamless ensemble production. Familiar BLT names blaze with a new fire and in every way there’s synergy between physical exuberance and indelible characterisation. Outstanding.