Celebrating Shared Experience's new residency at the Oxford Playhouse is a great idea. Over the years they have produced some memorable theatre there. I am a little confused as to why they have chosen a reworking of Bronte – last seen in Oxford five years ago. I would have thought something brand new would have been more appropriate for this new relationship.
There is no doubting Polly Teale's passion for the subject of the Bronte family and their works – it is very evident in her script. However there is something slightly dated in the idea that fiction and the biography of the author are inextricably linked. Many modern literary theorists take issue with such an approach and whilst it can make for some powerful moments, for me, it rather simplifies the creative process rather than illuminating it fully.
I suspect that those who know and love the novels of the Bronte sisters will enjoy the performance more than someone, like myself, who has never got to grips with their works. My companion for the evening is a self-confessed Bronte fan and loved the evening where I was left a lot more ambivalent about the success of the production.
I cannot find fault with the stagecraft or individual performances. The design (Ruth Sutcliffe) and lighting (Chahine Yavroyan) are particularly effective – evoking the claustrophobia of the Bronte home and the open spaces of the moors with elegant simplicity and power. The acting is consistent and clearly delineated – Nancy Meckler is to be credited for shaping some excellent moments from all six cast members.
Without knowing a lot more of the biography of the Bronte family, I am rather uncertain as to whether the play is trying to make a point of about potential incest within the family by having the male actors playing Branwell and Patrick Bronte also play the leading men in the novels. Or it might just be an inevitable consequence of having to work with limited budgets. Either way, I found it a little unsatisfying.
Structurally the play is much stronger in the first half – where the story of the sisters is expertly woven with those from the novels. After the interval the effect is not as strong – leaving us slightly distanced from what should be the most powerful moments of the narratives. There are a large number of very short scenes in the text and this, for me, interrupts the flow of the piece – leaving me wanting to see the characters interact over long periods of stage time – rather than in a series of 3 minute snapshots.
As a theatregoer without a detailed knowledge or love of the Brontes, this was not the most satisfying of theatrical events – I did not feel any real connection with or empathy for them. For lovers of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, I am sure the experience is a very different one.
I can appreciate the quality of the direction, design and acting – the subject and script just did not work for me on this occasion. I am sure, however, that Shared Experience and Oxford Playhouse will, funding permitting, continue to work together in a very productive fashion.