Brontë is a poetic and moving exploration of aspirations, longing, and the relationship between life and text.
Letterbox Productions’ Brontë melds the real and fictional worlds of the Brontë sisters, and examines their lives as their brother Branwell descends into alcoholism and madness. The play traces the influence of their personal circumstances on their literary creations, and dramatises the desires and anxieties of the women writers constricted by Victorian society.
The actors convey, with emotional realism, a palpable sense of yearning throughout the play – Maire McGovern’s Charlotte is steady-eyed and ambitious, Charlie Barnett’s Emily is equally determined in her restraint, and Anne-Marie Garrett’s Anne sustains a tender optimism. Their unique personalities are vividly developed throughout, as we observe their emerging differences in response to family situations. Charlotte is often physically and mentally distant from her two sisters when they share playful moments, absorbed in her writing or looking outwards, as though seeking a connection to the larger outer world. Emily is at odds with Charlotte in her wish to be unknown, yet one can feel the tension between liberation and inhibition within herself. While Anne is less directly involved in most conflicts in the play, Anne-Marie Garrett does well in her portrayal of hope and familial bond, adding dimension to the sisters’ relationship with her lightness that accentuates the darkness.
The gender relations that shape the Brontë family are highlighted through strong performances from both Jacob Freda (Branwell) and John Duffett (Patrick). John Duffett’s commanding presence on stage is symbolic as the male authority that pervades the home, and his encouragement of storytelling and expectations of Branwell are shown to have an effect on subsequent events. Jacob Freda’s Branwell draws sympathy as we follow the evolution from his closeness to Charlotte in childhood to his feelings of disappointment and disillusionment, and the intensity of his depiction supports the construction of the fraught atmosphere. The relationship between Charlotte and Branwell is nuanced, and her anger at his degeneracy is ridden with both feelings of love and injustice. The contrast between an earlier childhood scene of Branwell’s make-believe storytelling, and a later similar scene that comes to resemble madness struck me as a poignant reminder of lost opportunity, and a retrospective view of the aspirations of youth.
The directorial decision to have Charlie (Emily) multi-role as Bertha and Anne-Marie (Anne) multi-role as Cathy have an interesting effect of linking the sisters’ repressed passions with the imagined characters that they create. Bertha and Cathy introduce an emotional range and sensuality that is not available to the Brontë sisters, and come across as an expression of what they cannot exhibit, at times as though bursting out from them. These fictions inhabit the same space as them, and the interplay between real experiences and literary manifestations is especially significant when both physical images and speech are layered on one another in the same space.
The rich textual imagery from the sisters’ writing permeate the play, and reaches towards different imagined worlds for escape from the confines of the home, where the play is set. Yet, there seems to be no real escape from this claustrophobia, as pages and pages of text are strewn on the table and floor and pegged along clotheslines, and it is in fact through the text they leave behind that we come to speculate their life experiences. This may answer the reiterated question of why they write, because there is a necessity to transcend the limitations imposed on women with little resources, to have something more than the physical body. A bird cage placed centrally at the back of the room is a metaphor of this need. Their hopes are symbolised by the paper cranes that are pegged to the clothesline alongside book pages, which the sisters use as a puppet for flight. Yet there are ultimately sentiments that words are unable to express, and the use of abstract movement is what gives power and presence to their desires.
The blending of expressive movement with naturalistic acting has been done effectively by Director Esther Levin and Assistant Director Imogen Usherwood. The movement sequences explore the relationship dynamics between the sisters, with abundant physical contact and weight shifts that illustrate their mutual dependence and the complex ties that bind them together. The shifts between different time periods, between reality and fiction, and between emotional states, have a seamless choreographed flow. The swift changes sometimes made it hard to discern between points in time, which caused slightly belated realisations from me, though in general it functioned well in showing how experiences and imagination bleed into each other. The timings of interrupting and overlapping narratives possess an aesthetic sense of rhythm, and the conscious use of space shared between the real and imagined created pleasing frames of images.
Overall, Brontë has been skilfully executed with artistic flair, with compelling acting and evident effort in directorial decisions.
By Lim Jia Ying