Saturday, 13 May 2017

Walking firmly over stones

Brontë birth anniversaries
I am living in a time of Brontëphilia. The Brontë Parsonage at Haworth begun a slew of anniversaries last year with the bicentenary of Charlotte’s birth and is continuing to celebrate milestones over the next few years.
  • 2016 – 200 years since Charlotte’s birth 
  • 2017 – 200 years since Branwell’s birth 
  • 2018 – 200 years since Emily’s birth 
  • 2019 – 200 years since the Reverend Patrick took up the role of pastor in Haworth 
  • 2020 – 200 years since Anne’s birth
The number of labels on the right link to earlier blogs I’ve written about the Brontës. Like Shakespeare, their works and lives, are bottomless pits of fascination. Sally and I went to see Bolton Octagon’s production of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, adapted by Deborah McAndrew and directed by Elizabeth Newman. The set was beautifully versatile, designed by Amanda Stoodley and the lighting and sound wutheringly atmospheric. Helen Graham, the tenant of the title, prompts malicious gossip in the nearby town. Will the town ever come to understand the headstrong tenant? Is she truly a widow? Who is the father of her son? What is her relationship with her landlord? Like the novel, the adaptation used the bold narrative device of the truth pouring out of the pages of Helen’s journal that, in a theatrical flourish, appeared just before the interval. Any road up, the production was so enjoyable we booked again to see it at the Theatre Royal in York where we were even closer to the actors’ expressions – and Sancho the eager dog!

Subversive work

Published in 1848 (under the male pseudonym Acton Bell) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was an instant and scandalous success. One contemporary reviewer proclaimed it “revolting, coarse, disgusting” and Anne’s own sister, Charlotte, prevented its re-publication after Anne’s untimely death. Is it the vivid portrayal of the lecherous and drunken husband and the debauchery of the aristocrats that offended? Or the issues surrounding the morality of bringing up a child in abusive circumstances? Or the blatant refusal of Helen to be a meek dutiful wife? Or the portrayal of a woman who refuses to compromise her principles? Or the class-upsetting thought of a “rich widow” attracting the admiration of a working class Yorkshire farmer and she going after him as an equal? Does the novel deserve its reputation as an early feminist tract? (Probably yes in answer to all these questions, in my view, and a masterpiece in consequence.)

A uniformly superb cast, beautifully choreographed, skillfully distinguished
Elizabeth Newman coaxed terrific performances out of the cast, some of whom played two roles effectively:
  • Pheobe Pryce as the complicated, religious, determined, straight-talking Helen Graham/Huntingdon
  • Michael Peavoy as the hard-working, steadfast, jealous, dogged, stubborn but lovable Gilbert Markham
  • Nicôle Lecky as Rose Markham, loyal and industrious, sometimes susceptible to gossip; and as the dazzling and amoral Lady Lowborough
  • Susan Twist as Mrs Markham, Yorkshire mother, blind to her own son’s faults and eager to be hospitable to all; and as courageous servant, Rachel
  • Marc Small as the charismatic, authoritative but doomed drunken rake Arthur Huntingdon
  • Colin Connor as the hypocritical pastor Reverend Millward; and as the hapless toff Lord Lowborough
  • Natasha Davidson as the flighty Eliza Millward; and as the abused Millicent Hattersley
  • Philip Starnier as the enigmatic landlord Lawrence; and as the weak-willed Ralph Hattersley
  • + a variety of child actors as the younger Arthur, crucial in scenes showing the contrast between Arthur Huntingdom and Gilbert Markham
  • + a variety of canine performers as Sancho the dog (woof!)

My favourite quotations
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall doesn’t contain some of the rock-hewn language of the works of Charlotte and Emily, but Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation included a couple of my favourite quotations from Anne's magnificent novel:
I maintain that if she were more perfect, she would be less interesting.
If you would have your son to walk honourably through the world, you must not attempt to clear the stones from his path, but teach him to walk firmly over them - not insist upon leading him by the hand, but let him learn to go alone.
I would rather have your friendship than the love of any other woman in the world.