Esther Levin introduces us to Brontë by Polly Teale, Letterbox Theatre Company’s Michaelmas production.
‘If it is an illness to write, we are already sick beyond cure.’
Brontë shifts continuously between the childhood, adolescence, adulthood and final days of the infamous Brontë family: Anne, Emily, Charlotte, their brother Branwell and father Patrick. It explores their influences which led to some of the most famous novels of all time, specifically Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. But it is not simply a story of literary success. It centres on their relationships as siblings, as children and as men and women in a Victorian society. We see the tension between Charlotte, who longs for fame and legacy, and her sister Emily who writes ‘to be unknown, unknowing’, yet simultaneously the underlying love between them. We see Branwell’s descent into alcoholism due to his own self-loathing, and how it not only affects his sisters’ lives but also their writing. And we see the imagined worlds of their characters brought to life as reflections of the authors themselves. Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason becomes the embodiment of Charlotte’s repressed passion and Cathy Earnshaw (from Wuthering Heights) the representation of Emily’s anxiety and fear.
I first discovered Brontë in my final year at school, as one of my A Level Drama texts, and I immediately fell in love with it. Polly Teale’s writing is so engaging because you are always kept on your toes. She flows from scene to scene without interruption and even though half the time it isn’t chronological or naturalistic it still makes complete sense, hence my decision to not use any blackouts during the performance and for actors to change character in full view of the audience, for example Emily multi-roling as Bertha without ever leaving the stage.
Teale’s fusion of reality and imagination by presenting scenes from Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights on stage is genius because you find yourselves understanding where the scenes come from and why they were written. Although the storyline is not entirely historically accurate, you feel as if you’ve been let into the secret workings of Emily and Charlotte’s minds. There are even lines spoken by the real characters that are later echoed by the literary ones. Charlotte’s self-disgust when she scolds herself, ‘Me, a favourite with him? Me, gifted with the power of pleasing him?’ directly translates into Jane Eyre, tying the characters together, whilst the line ‘How can I live without my life? How can I live without my soul?’ links Branwell to Heathcliff.
My vision for the play focuses on the whole family’s obsession with literature. The set consists of pages and pages of the most popular novels of each of the sisters, on the floor, on the table and hanging above their heads. The washing lines of pages I believe work well in regards to the continuous style of the play as they allow actors to grab pages as soon as they are needed, but they also create a sense of claustrophobia. I wanted the set to mimic the birdcage that is so often alluded to. Our production begins and ends with Cathy fantasising about birds and their freedom, and there are many other moments where the bird motif is reused: Emily brings home a bird with a broken wing and later has her own pet hawk. I read the motif as a metaphor for a woman’s freedom. They are all trapped – like birds in a cage – in their roles as Victorian women, and they can only find true freedom in their writing. Consequently, we have tried to represent this metaphor in our staging and also in our movement.
In the past I have seen movement used in Durham Student Theatre simply for the sake of having movement, but I wanted to incorporate it into Brontë in a different way as my interest is in the expressiveness of movement. We have tried to use it in the piece only to convey the moments where words simply aren’t enough, to express the inexpressible: relationships, travel, grief, nostalgia, love. I hope that these emotions and feelings within the movement mean as much to the audience as they do to us.
Ultimately, the reason people should come and see Brontë is because the cast are fantastic, and they, along with my amazing Assistant Director Imogen Usherwood and Producer Amy Allison, have worked so hard in such a short space of time to bring Teale’s work to life. But you should also come and watch because it is a play that is engaging, entertaining, emotional and in my personal opinion, epic.
Brontë will be playing at the Durham Union Debating Chamber, Palace Green, at 7:30pm on 2nd and 3rd December.
Photography by Rahul Shah, graphics by Amy Allison