DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – York Theatre Royal

Writer: Deborah McAndrew

Based on a novel by: Anne Bronte

Director: Elizabeth Newman

Designer: Amanda Stoodley

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Not before time, Anne Bronte is being rescued from her position as the “third” sister in every way, the one who, in Lip Service’s Bronte parody, Withering Looks, has just popped out for a cup of sugar. In fact, her novels now seem the most modern of the sisters’, meaty works that are not afraid to tackle big issues and unpalatable truths. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is free of the self-projection of her sisters’ novels, takes a cold hard look at the ravages of alcoholism and presents a more cogent case for equality in marriage than either of her sisters, despite their memorably spirited heroines. And, in spite of her devoted Christianity, she is prepared to attack Christian society’s automatic condemnation of a woman who leaves her husband.

So a new dramatisation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by a thoughtful and original writer who respects the original, but is not slavishly bound by it, is very welcome, but at York Theatre Royal its impact is muted: a rather pedestrian first half is followed by a second half that flares into shocking life from time to time before outstaying its welcome. Deborah McAndrew’s version for eight actors – plus an excellent 10-or-11-year-old and a lovable collie making token appearances – tidies up Bronte’s rather ramshackle narrative, but misses the rich range of characters and the authentic voices of Helen Graham and Gilbert Markham.

Bronte’s Chinese box of narratives is inevitably simplified, but McAndrew maintains some elements of reported events. In her version, village life centres on the Markham and Millward families. There are some nice broad characterisations: Colin Connor’s opinionated Reverend Millward, chewing devoutly on a broad Northern Ireland accent (Rev. Patrick Bronte was born in Co. Down – any significance?), or Susan Twist as Mrs. Markham, determined to feed, water and lecture the populace.

The major topic of conversation is the new tenant of the dilapidated Wildfell Hall, Helen Graham, supposedly a poor widow, with her young son. At first curious, but rather disapproving, young farmer Gilbert Markham, the most independent-minded character in the two families, becomes more interested in Helen and eventually falls in love. As rumours multiply about Helen – not really a widow, run away from her husband – and Gilbert suspects that she loves Lawrence, her landlord at the Hall, she gives Gilbert her journal which reveals that she fled from an abusive and alcoholic husband. The two narratives – Helen as cold remote tenant of the Hall and as abused wife seeking to escape – finally come together.

Phoebe Pryce (Helen) negotiates the changes in character, from chilling hauteur to wifely desperation, very capably, as does Michael Peavoy, unconventionally off-hand at first as Gilbert, gradually overtaken by his obsession with Helen. As her husband, Marc Small is as unpleasant as one could wish and brings real power to his scenes of alcoholic agony. The other five actors all make much of doubling contrasted parts in the two narratives.

This is a solid piece of theatre and true to Anne Bronte’s concept, but somehow it doesn’t excite. Some rather stolid dialogue scenes at the Markhams’ farm don’t help, but also Elizabeth Newman’s production seems geared to the in-the-round (or octagonal) space of the Octagon Theatre, Bolton, where it began. There is some clumsy blocking for the proscenium stage, entrances and exits go for nothing, and too much of the action, especially in Act 1, is confined to a downstage strip where characters stand or sit in a half-circle.

Runs until 6 May 2017 | Image: Contributed

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