MY main source for knowledge of the life and works of the Bronte sisters is a chart-topping single by Kate Bush, so I was looking forward to learning more about this literary family this evening, in the safe hands of the company at The Swan. I have said before that I would happily watch them perform the worst possible play available, such is the quality of this company.
Bronte, however, is a superb play, taking the central characters of Charlotte, Emily and Anne, along with their brother Branwell and father Patrick, and using every bit of available evidence to give us an insight into their lives, and the lives of women at that time. We see characters being formed in the minds of the sisters, from their own frustrations, hopes, anger and passion. Polly Teale conjures these characters from their work to help tell the tale, particularly Cathy from Wuthering Heights, giving wonderful opportunity for Anne Sargent, playing Cathy, and Alison Maynard-Griffin as her creator, to speak lines as if they are one person, giving a magical, almost seance-like effect.
It is no surprise to me that every actor is perfectly cast, and is completely believable in their role. Alice Emily Browne as Anne seems younger, more naive, and therefore comes across as all the more shocking when we hear about the obscenities in her writing. Maynard-Griffin is slightly out of this world as Emily, spending time walking, and keeping a hawk, and her development of Cathy allows her to slip even further away from reality, until finally she is led from the stage by her creation.
Charlotte seems more down to earth and practical, and survives the longest, even marrying towards the end of the play, and Sarah Easterbrook brings great focus and observation to the role, showing frustration that Emily will not trust her, while at the same time playing happily at sailors with Branwell.
Branwell is a sad case, using any money he can find, and some people too, and Oliver Delafield seems to delight in playing him, as well as a couple of hunks from the novels.
Patrick Bronte, the father, played by experienced Swan member Robert Graydon, with a delightful and completely accurate Irish lilt, is the constant in this play, there from beginning to end, outliving his daughters and providing some of the understanding for the audience of why his daughters were so well educated, and possibly why they felt the need to escape their real lives by imagining their fiction.
Mark Payne says in his programme biog that he thought he was too old to play romantic heroes, but he is a very convincing Rochester to Charlotte and to Rosy Sargent’s wild and untamed Bertha, and a loving husband to Charlotte as Arthur Bell Nicholls.
The set, designed by Annetta Broughton, is simple and practical, with a beautifully lit background of the Yorkshire hills with sky above, giving us every kind of weather, from glorious reds to flashes of lightning.
This is the first show that Jess Payne has directed, and I commend her for it, on every level. Her cast knew their characters inside out, and managed this technically difficult script extremely well – tight on their cues and completely accurate with moves and positioning. This was a slick, highly talented ensemble, with every member of the team at the top of their game. Well done to all, and I hope this is not the last we see of Jess as director.