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Bronte (Newbury)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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For over 30 years Shared Experience has explored storytelling onstage, finding new ways to share their characters’ interior and exterior worlds. In Bronte, the three sisters who wrote some of the most enduring stories in the English language invite us into their lives and the worlds of their imagination.

Writer Polly Teale directed the premiere in 2005, working on script development with Nancy Meckler, director of this production, and the pair’s long association proves extraordinarily fruitful.

If anything, their revisit is even more richly layered. The performers playing the sisters again begin in modern dress, researchers into the Brontë who transform into the trio, exchanging biographical insights as they help each other into stays and petticoats – and earth-coloured dresses that enhance the beauty of the stage picture even as they underline the drabness of the sisters’ lives.

Maybe it’s a function of Ruth Sutcliffe’s high-walled set, both confining and cocooning from the outside world, but there’s an even greater feeling of bottled-up energy and creativity. The sisters and their brother Branwell (convincingly febrile Mark Edel-Hunt) fire each other’s imaginations in childhood. Later the sisters transmute every life experience, from the humiliation of the governess’s role to errant male behaviour into the richness of their writing

But Teale’s story is not linear. It moves back and forth in time, exploring cause and effect; and in and out of fiction to explore the interior worlds the sisters will share with us in their work. And all this is achieved with such clarity that the audience follows with rapt attention.

She’s served by a pitch perfect cast. Kristin Atherton’s Charlotte burns with creative fire and passion, trapped in a world of workaday drudgery and genteel poverty from which Teale has her emerge to become her alter-ego Jane Eyre, dogged by the wild and fiery id of the madwoman Bertha (Frances McNamee), a dangerously sexual presence in flame red.

Even the world she creates is a man’s world and she shares with her sisters responsibility for their menfolk, their ageing father (superb David Fielder, reprising his roles, as Bronte senior at different ages, Mr Rochester and Charlotte’s kindly husband, curate Bell Nicholls) and the brother whose artistic talent is drowned in drink. Flora Nicholson is touching as the caring supportive Anne. Apparently the most down to earth sister, Nicholson makes it clear she’s nursing the interior life that produces the sensational Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Elizabeth Crarer’s luminous Emily, a free-spirited tomboy with close-cropped hair finds inspiration in the moors beyond the vicarage, and security in the family circle at home. When Emily releases the bird of prey she’s taming and rejoices in it its return, Crarer simply stands on the table and flutters her hands, but the beauty of this image, so central to the story, is heart-stopping. Cathy and Heathcliff, her most famous creations, are wonderfully realised by McNamee and Edel-Hunt. The image of Cathy’s fragile ghost cradling the dying Emily will stay with me.

- Judi Herman (reviewed at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury)


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