Writer: Anne Brontë
Adaptor: Deborah McAndrew
Director: Elizabeth Newman
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
If you’re familiar with Anne Brontë’s 1848 novel, you’ll know that it’s a gripping tale of love, loss and human failing. You’ll also know that it harbours some dark issues that remain, unfortunately, completely relevant to a 21st Century audience. If, like this reviewer, you have seriously failed to read much of the literary output of the 19th Century, then this new adaptation is a great way to fill in one of the gaps and possibly spark your enthusiasm to read more. While making the necessary changes to turn a book written in first person narratives into theatrical drama, reduce the story to one that can be told in two hours, and be sparing with characters, Deborah McAndrew has still managed to retain a powerful story and characters with real depth.
When a stranger moves into Wildfell Hall, the local people just can’t keep away. A reclusive single woman with a small child appearing out of nowhere is just too much for the village gossips to bear. They are desperate to know her story – and so are we. Right from the start, the play sets up questions that need to be answered, intriguing characters with masses of untold back-story. Farmer Gilbert (Michael Peavoy) and his sister Rose (Nicôle Lecky) live with their overbearing mother (Susan Twist). The arrival of Helen Graham (Phoebe Pryce), the eponymous tenant, rather disturbs their humdrum lives, as Gilbert finds widow Helen’s mystery difficult to resist.
When Helen eventually loans Gilbert her diary we see her turbulent past played out in flashback. A hasty marriage to the wealthy Arthur Huntingdon (Marc Small), a miserable life among a crowd of despicable hangers on, the birth of her son Little Arthur (Adam Crompton). The actors double up for these scenes, which creates the usual jolt that slightly takes the viewer out of the action, but they’re a fascinating, slightly grotesque bunch of characters so the distraction is fairly short-lived. The loathsome Albert soon proves himself to be deceiving Helen, both in their marriage and in any affection he has for her, and as things descend into violence, she prepares to leave.
It’s pretty grim to think about how relevant The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is to a modern audience. The story of domestic violence, the protection of child, of alcoholism, abuse and financial control could be the script of a contemporary soap opera. Brontë’s 19th Century heroine also has to deal with the shame of failing to be a dutiful wife, something we might hope wouldn’t keep a woman in a violent relationship now – but is certainly not a completely obsolete narrative. Like all classics, it’s powerful because of the timeless story of the human condition that’s at its core.
Anne Brontë’s real gift to Deborah McAndrew, though, is Helen. If not quite a feminist there’s no doubt that she’s a survivor, a woman who knows her mind and isn’t afraid to take drastic steps to change her life. Phoebe Pryce portrays her with a quiet strength, commanding the stage with her stillness and steely stare. There’s little doubt that she’ll get what she wants in the end. Pryce is surrounded by a strong ensemble cast that successfully take on the play’s humour alongside its dark drama. Marc Small plays Arthur has with a brilliant contrast of easy charm and chilling menace. Michael Peavoy’s Gilbert begins as a picture of respectability, his underlying smouldering desire slowly emerging in true Brontë style.
In the Octagon’s in-the-round space, there’s an intimacy to the play that suits Helen’s claustrophobic world. Amanda Stoodley’s rather clunky set adds little to the play – various bits of furniture surrounded by partial stone walls, but the ‘real’ fire adds a cosy domestic warmth to the farmhouse scenes.
The Octagon is a safe bet for a classic play or solid adaptation, and they certainly deliver with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It’s not a ground-breaking piece of new theatre but it delivers an impactful story, well told.
Runs until 22 April 2017 | Image: Richard Davenport