“We are three sisters...” – the words of Charlotte Bronte to her publisher George Smith, admitting the deception in the names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The same four words are also the title of a new play by Blake Morrison which is to be premiered by Northern Broadsides at the Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, on 9 September. Of course we are also reminded of the title of a classic play by Anton Chekhov and, in fact, We Are Three Sisters is a cunning construct: essentially the structure of Three Sisters, with Olga, Maria and Irina replaced by Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Chekhov certainly knew, and was interested in, the story of the Brontes and it is widely believed that they provided the initial inspiration, though not the detail, for the Russian play.
Blake Morrison has a fine track record of re-presenting classic plays of other cultures in a vital Yorkshire setting. His first work for Northern Broadsides was a boisterous version of Heinrich von Kleist’s Der Zerbrochne Krug as The Cracked Pot and since then he has moved on to Italian farce and a whole series of Ancient Greek plays.
“I don’t know how to write original plays,” he claims unconvincingly. “I’m more interested in using other people’s and doing new versions. You try to be true to the original and make it speak in a different way or in a different context – it’s a matter of trying to unearth what’s there and present it afresh.”
Where, I wondered, did the inspiration come from for the play? Was he looking for a fresh take on the Brontes or did Barrie Rutter, Broadsides’ Artistic Director, commission a new version of Chekhov? Neither, really. As is so often the case, the idea was one that had been developing over several years:
“Susannah Clapp the theatre critic who’s a friend of mine, said, ‘Have you ever thought about doing Three Sisters as the Brontes? I think there are some interesting parallels. I looked into it and agreed: the three of them, the brother who’s off the rails, the other woman who’s much resented in the family. But I found also there were so many differences, so I put it on hold for quite a long time. When I came back to it, in three successive drafts I’ve got closer to the Brontes. When I’ve had to depart from the truth of the Brontes story, I’ve done it knowingly – I don’t want to misrepresent them other than that. The structure of the Chekhov play is wonderful and I wanted to stay true to that. I wanted to bring out things about the Brontes and cross these two things and see if it worked.”
Despite the fact that the basic plot is fiction, Blake’s talk is often of authenticity – and also of the provisional nature of a script. Even after three drafts, his presence at rehearsal is partly to alter and improve the text as the actors bring it to life.
Clearly Blake Morrison had done his research for the play. He was born and brought up near Haworth and once wrote a musical version of Wuthering Heights with Howard Goodall that never reached the stage because it coincided with Cliff Richard’s Heathcliff! But it’s only recently that he’s immersed himself in the novels, letters, biographies to the extent that he’s able to quote chapter and verse on the relationship between his play and life in Haworth parsonage.
The sisters broadly fit with the three in Chekhov’s play – Charlotte the older responsible one, Emily the romantic, the young Anne reflect well enough Olga, Maria and Irina – but he also identifies themes in common: work, love, a changing society. He half accepts my suggestion of isolation/the world outside (“I slightly resist the idea of Haworth being completely isolated, but there is a sense of them feeling the capital is where things happen”) and makes the point that the famous line “Moscow! Moscow! Moscow!” (turned into London, of course) is divided between the sisters, Emily expressing her distaste for the city.
The play is set fairly specifically in time in a period of maybe six months n 1848 when the novels have just come out, not long before Branwell dies, in the aftermath of his affair with a woman called Mrs Robinson: “a key period, with success and death not far ahead.”
Blake’s bold statement, “It really is the Brontes, broadly enacting the plot of Three Sisters”, inevitably brings problems and decisions. Many of the facts of the Brontes’ lives are known and they are not the same as the invented facts of the lives of the Prozorov family. So how to be true to both? Blake Morrison’s biggest innovation in terms of plot is the addition of a very short Act 4 to be inserted before Chekhov’s original final Act 4. In this Charlotte and Anne tell a furious Emily about their meeting with the publisher in London and its consequences.
Blake runs through a few of the changes he has made, all supported by what we know of the Brontes. The presence of soldiers, as in the Chekhov play, would not convince so they’ve been cut – and a key role transferred appropriately to a curate: “The love-sick General becomes the love-sick curate.” He has even found that Charlotte’s letters refer to a curate at Haworth (not Mr. Nicholls whom she married) as a tremendous flirt! At the end of the play, a duel would not fit, but Blake has used a perfectly believable tragedy for the Brontes (wait and see!), then ends the play, as does Chekhov, with a discussion on the meaning of life.
A few weeks ago Northern Broadsides submitted the play to the scrutiny of an audience at Haworth that contained many of the diehard experts of the Bronte Society. As a result the odd change was made, but Blake was delighted to be able to answer the objections to at least two words!
“People objected to the use of automaton, but in Jane Eyre Jane says to Rochester, ‘Do you think I am an automaton, that I have no feelings?’ Or ‘screw’ in the sense of extorting money, but Charlotte wrote in a letter about Branwell screwing money out of their father. The Lord Mayor of Bradford commented on a line about Branwell wanting to be Lord Mayor and said that actually in 1848 there wasn’t a Lord Mayor, only a Mayor, so I changed that!”
Of the ten characters, slightly reduced from Chekhov, only two did not individually exist in the Bronte story, the generic figures of Doctor and Teacher. Given that the play’s director, Barrie Rutter takes the role of the Teacher, there’s little doubt he will burst into individual life at the Viaduct Theatre!
After the Viaduct Theatre, Halifax (September 9-17), We Are Three Sisters plays 10 more theatres, four of them in Yorkshire:
18-22 October Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
25-29 October Georgian Theatre, Richmond
2-5 November Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield
22-26 November Theatre Royal, York