Review: Villette (West Yorkshire Playhouse)

West Yorkshire Playhouse adapt Charlotte Bronte’s novel as part of their Bronte season

This Villette is billed as an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s 1853 novel Villette, then in smaller print "re-imagined by Linda Marshall-Griffiths". Needless to say, this is probably not one for the Brontë devotees.

The play is none too successful on its own terms, but it is vividly designed (Jess Curtis) and directed (Mark Rosenblatt), with striking lighting by Chris Davey and smart use of video projections by Andrzej Goulding. It even has a couple of sweetly written and acted humorous scenes. However, it spectacularly fails to throw light on the original.

Lucy Snowe is, admittedly, one of the most enigmatic and potentially irritating protagonists in 19th century literature and it is no easy task to re-imagine her mixture of boldness and timidity, her desire to be unobtrusive, the strength of her Protestant faith and, even, the opaqueness of her narrative. Marshall-Griffiths directs all her efforts to finding an equivalent to Lucy’s journey from repression to the discovery of love – and to do so moves outside normal humanity. Her Lucy Stone is the cloned "daughter" of a scientist and was part of a failed experiment that destroyed most of the other clones. Her journey into normality is as much Frankenstein’s creature finding out about the world as it is Lucy Snowe discovering love.

The other parts bear the names of the characters in the book, but simply take on their prime traits, without developing as characters. Beck, for instance (a rather pallid performance from Catherine Cusack), has as almost her only characteristic the obsession with surveillance that is part of the multi-layered character of Madame Beck in the original.

Sadly the plot justifies all too readily the Playhouse’s claim to be "the home of incredible stories". Sometime in the future archaeologists and scientists are working to excavate the remains of the Lady of Villette, a nun who, in time of plague, survived despite working openly among its victims. Her DNA may contain the antidote to the plague that is threatening mankind. Lucy, cloned, tagged with a wrist-band, under constant surveillance, joins the team as a virologist.

This is a long way from a school in Brussels and a growing love for a prickly professor. At times the stories come together briefly: the nicely played scene where Lucy joins Mrs Bretton (Cusack again) and John (Nana Amoo-Gottfried) after being left alone in charge of the school/dig, or the effectively allusive ending.

Much works better as a puzzle than as a drama. However, Laura Elsworthy is compelling in the lead role, expressive and agonised, her broken speech and jerky movement human, but not quite human. Amelia Donkor’s Gin is refreshingly lively and Philip Cairns (Paul) has fun with the comedy of gaucheness.

Villette runs at West Yorkshire Playhouse until 15 October.

Watch our video of the cast rehearsing Villette here