Hugo Millard is immersed in Brontë by Polly Teale, Letterbox Productions’ Michaelmas Term show.
Polly Teale’s Brontë has proved an excellent choice for Letterbox Theatre Company’s Michaelmas show, with its intensity and variety lending itself well to the expressive direction of Esther Levin, who, with a talented cast, has wonderfully brought the story of the Brontë sisters to life. The production was both incredibly moving and revealing of sisters’ relationships and inspirations; playing on moments of comedy whilst not holding back when exploring darker themes, such as mourning and addiction. Whether the Brontës are your favourite authors or you’ve never touched of their books in your life, Brontë will not fail to blow you away and draw you into the intimate lives of the three sisters.
The venue choice of the Durham Union Debating Chamber was well suited for the performance, with the architectural aesthetic of the space subtly paying tribute to the gothic writing of the sisters, and allowing for a more experimental formatting of the audience and stage. Almost putting the performance into a thrust configuration, the smaller capacity of the space meant that the audience couldn’t help but become involved in the drama unfolding onstage, creating a more intimate atmosphere and ultimately proving a clever way to force a modern audience to engage with the struggles and emotions of the nineteenth century. Despite several minor, yet noticeable, hiccups with the tech throughout the production, the lighting and effective use of sound heightened the atmosphere and ensured that the audience remained within the ethereal world of the Brontës. Special mention must go to the set and prop design, focusing the drama in an empty ‘neutral’ space backed by a long white table and the ornate chairs, with paper scattered across the floor and crossed above with strings of pages from the novels. The minimal set was put to good use, supplying a variety of purposes, from sickbeds to writing desks. The pages above were periodically taken or snatched down and became an assortment of objects, both physical and symbolic, that the play demanded, whilst simultaneously acting as a constantly changing backdrop to the performance.
Levin’s decision to incorporate abstract movement throughout the piece was incredibly effective, using it as a central base around which the wider story could comfortably form. Though generally fluid and ethereal, some of the early movement sequences seemed a little clumsy or half-hearted and lost the full effect that was needed to properly convey the emotions and relations expressed to the audience. That said, as the production went on the actors recovered well and began to fully engage with the unspoken narrative of the movement sequences, more than making up for any earlier disengagement with some powerful and often impressive performances.
The three main actors, Marie McGovern (Charlotte), Charlie Barnett (Emily), and Anne-Marie Garrett (Anne), offered exceptionally strong performances, bearing the majority of the play’s dialogue between them and establishing some amazing character development from beginning to end. Notably all three remained on stage for the duration of the play and, needless to say, didn’t disappoint in their stamina or quality of acting. Whilst all three must be applauded for the emotional depth and family chemistry that they brought to the production, the fantastic intensity and depth that Barnett created, both as Emily Brontë and Bertha Mason, is of particular note and worked well against the emotional weight and solidarity that McGovern was able to establish in Charlotte, driving the play firmly onward. Garrett also brought a definite characterization and range to her performance, though occasionally seeming a little lost, her movement between Anne Brontë and Cathy Earnshaw was seamless and wonderfully blurred the boundaries between fiction and ‘reality’. John Duffett (Patrick Brontë/Arthur Bell Nicholls/Mr Heger) and Jacob Freda (Branwell Brontë) were both able to establish strong characters that remained firmly as impressively realised individuals, whilst simultaneously complimenting and emphasising the amazingly strong personalities of all three sisters. Despite an occasionally loose or uncertain accent, the cast were able to convincingly create unique and believable characters with whom the audience could relate and connect.
Brontë is, without doubt, a success, with the commitment and hard work of the cast and crew manifesting beautifully in a full theatrical experience. Despite a few lapses or hiccups throughout the performance, the momentum and quality of the show remained unaffected and ultimately presented an electrifying, semi-immersive insight into the complex lives and struggles of the Brontë sisters.
Brontë will be playing at the Durham Union Debating Chamber on 3rd December at 7:30pm.
Photo by Imogen Usherwood