Brontë – Smock Alley – Review by Frank L.
Written by Polly Teale
Smock Alley Theatre, 6th – 11th March @ 7:30pm
DLR Mill Theatre, Dundrum, 16th – 18th March 8pm (Matinee Saturday 18th @ 1:30pm)
The lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë in Haworth parsonage has long been a source of fascination for literary historians, biographers and social commentators. That the extraordinary novels that are Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights should have emanated from such an unlikely source is a mystery which continues to fascinate. Teale has already written a stage adaptation of Jane Eyre and its prequel Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso and in this play concentrates on the happenings in the parsonage. She tells the story chronologically for the most part but she intersperses the facts with excerpts from the two novels thereby illustrating the facts with some fictional dramatisation. She begins this process by the use of the voluminous tiny notebooks which Charlotte kept and the strange world that they had created in plays which they had imagined with their brother Branwell who was, in adulthood, to disappoint the entire family to an unimaginable degree.
Ashleigh Dorrell (Anne), Katie McCann (Emily) and Louise O’Meara (Charlotte) under the direction of Clare Maguire create the world of the sisters with their jealousies, ambitions, sibling rivalries and dreams generously displayed. Their industry stands in stark contrast to the indiscipline of Branwell. The other family member is of course the father Patrick, played by Ruairi Leneghan, a remote figure whose gift to English literature was that he encouraged all of his children to read widely. In fact they read texts which for the time would not have been considered suitable for young folk and certainly not young ladies.
It was this intoxicating mixture of influences, at a time when Yorkshire was being transformed by the industrial revolution, with all the resulting social injustices all too apparent, which creates the kernel of this piece. Dorrell, McCann and O’Meara delve deep into themselves to turn the legendary sisters into flesh and blood. Each of them gives a very different performance, as their underlying characters are unique, but they create the sense of a common purpose as they face the world as three impecunious sisters and spinsters.
The set is simple with a table at which the sisters write. The Gothic windows of the Boys’ School assist as they exude a certain religious ambience to the proceedings which is appropriate given that Patrick Brontë was a devout man of the cloth. His life had already been smitten by the death of his wife and two eldest daughters at the time the play begins. Added to this tragedy is the reality that it is a household of very few luxuries (a second plum pudding is mentioned as a possession to be prized) in which these extraordinary three women manage to flourish.
My only criticism of the play is that in a post script which describes Charlotte’s career after she left the Parsonage, there is no mention of the fate of Patrick, a curious omission.
Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are enormous creations of fiction. Teale’s play and this fine production give some idea of the family and the social factors which provided the nourishment to assist their creation. It makes those factors vivid and makes it a little bit more understandable how these two great works of fiction came into existence. This impressive production by this young theatre company is well worth a visit.