A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Bronte, arriving at the Lyric Hammersmith, is Polly Teale’s third work in a trilogy dealing with Jane Eyre and Charlotte Bronte.  The first, written a decade ago, was a stage adaptation of the novel and suggested that the madwoman in the attic represented a hidden aspect of Jane herself, and of Charlotte. Notes Ms. Teale of the madwoman,  She is both dangerous and exciting.  She is passionate and sexual, angry and violent.  She is the embodiment of everything that Charlotte feared in herself and longed to express, of everything Charlotte’s life could never be.” 

The second play in the trilogy, After Mrs. Rochester, looks back to the childhood of Bertha, the madwoman, growing up in Dominica in the Caribbean as did English writer Jean Rhys, whose novel Wild Sargasso Sea is a prequel to Jane Eyre.  Ms. Teale’s drama had a successful run in London’s West End with Diana Quick starring as Jean, whose story is told along with that of Antoinette, who is renamed Bertha by Mr. Rochester after he arrives to marry her for her dowry and to take her to England. 

In the latest play, “Bronte,” Ms. Teale depicts the restricted life of the Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Anne and Emily (author of Wuthering Heights), their preacher father, and their brother Branwell, in the parsonage at Howorth in Yorkshire in the mid-nineteenth century.  Everyday chores occupy their external activities as “one day resembles another and all have lifeless physiognomies,” Charlotte writes to her sister; yet her internal life, like that of Emily, was very different.  For the sisters are writing their two masterpieces, and as they mouth the lines of their books, imagination is embodied by a dancer erotically personifying the madwoman in Jane Eyre and the wild, dying Cathy vowing eternal love for Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights.  Ms. Teale explains that to tell the sisters’ story “we need to dramatize the collision between drab domesticity and unfettered, soaring imagination, to see both the real and internal world at once, to make visible what is hidden inside.”  And so she brings into the play these two characters from the novels, “living in the house, haunting their creators. While the sisters cook and clean and sew there exists another world full of passion and fury.” 

The play first depicts the siblings as children, relieving their isolated lives by writing (on tiny pages) and acting out adventure stories for Branwell’s toy soldiers.  Their father’s library of famous writers like Shakespeare, Milton, and Byron also fired their imaginations, though women in the 1850s were not allowed to borrow library books, a privilege extended only to brother Branwell.  But when the sisters discard their pinafores, indicating their growth into women poor and plain, facing a reality where prospects are severely limited.  For educated women, the job of governess was their only hope, and at that occupation (unlike Jane Eyre) they achieved small success.  Branwell, less restricted than his sisters, indulged in gambling, lost a tutoring job because of an affair with the mother of his charge, took to drink and drugs, and descended into paranoia. 

Fenella Woolgar expertly brings out both Charlotte’s repression and her desire “to travel, to work, to live a life of action,” as she writes her sister.  When Jane Eyre is a tremendous success and her identity (concealed by a pseudonym) revealed, she travels to London to be celebrated by the literary lights of the day; but when Charlotte also discloses Emily’s name, she is furious, for she craved anonymity.  Another cause of tension in the household is Branwell’s increasingly outrageous behavior, some of it brought about by his inability to live up to the expectations of his father and sisters.  Diane Beck and Catherine Cusack are impressive as Emily and Anne, as Emily withdraws from the world, wandering the moors like her heroine, and Anne becomes concerned with social injustice.   Matthew Thomas as Branwell and Heathcliffe and David Fielder as the father are both outstanding as they enact family as well as fictional characters. Mr. Fielder is Rochester in the excerpt from Jane Eyre when he reveals to Jane (Ms. Woolgar) the identity of the madwoman, attempting to restrain the “figure…like some strange wild animal” that bites him.  Dancer Natalia Tena is effective as both Bertha, in red, and Cathy, in flowing white nightclothes. 

Evocative images by artist Paula Rego from her series on Jane Eyre are projected on the backdrop, contributing to the effect of reality–fantasy by providing a contrast with the kitchen setting by Angela Davies.  Bronte is a theater experience not to be missed, especially when we consider that Jane Eyre is believed to be the second-most read book in English, the first being the Bible. Performance schedule on tour and in London: www.sharedexperience.org.uk  (Lyric Hammersmith, Lyric Square, King Street, London W6 0QL; phone: 08700 500 511. Tickets: www.lyric.co.uk.)