Underdog: The Other Other Brontë – National Theatre, London

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Writer: Sarah Gordon

Director: Natalie Ibu

In the 1840s, when the nights were cold and blustery on the Yorkshire Moors, if there were no good books to read, it seems that the best thing to do would have been to write them. Such was the case with the legendary Brontë sisters who provide the inspiration for Sarah Gordon’s new play, a compelling tale of sisterly rivalries blended in with 19th Century gender politics and 21st-century celebrity culture.

The Dorfman Theatre is introduced to re-wilding in set designer Grace Smart’s representation of the drama’s primary location and, even though the vegetation disappears from view, it leaves behind a sense of the characters’ earthiness, their language being peppered generously with fruity modern-day expletives. As Gordon examines the dynamics of female relationships, her hypothesis is that the “other other” sister is Anne, the youngest, who is overshadowed unjustly by the domineering Charlotte, the eldest, and by Emily, whose novel Wuthering Heights is already acknowledged to be a great work.

Gemma Whelan’s Charlotte, dressed all in bright red, is ambitious and surprisingly cold-hearted. It is she who advocates the sisters working together, encouraging and supporting each other as they strive to succeed as writers. In fact, collaboration turns into competition and jealousy. Gordon shows us Charlotte shamelessly plagiarising Anne’s debut novel, Agnes Grey, when writing Jane Eyre and, later, going on to suppress The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne’s hard-hitting account of early Victorian society.

Anne (Rhiannon Clements) fights in vain to resist Charlotte’s dominance, while Emily (Adele James) stands between them. With the sisters being forced to publish their works under male pseudonyms, Gordon turns a strong spotlight on the subservience of women in Victorian society, adding sly references to modern-day gender inequalities. She also shows sympathy for the fourth sibling, rarely sober brother Branwell (James Phoon), who finds himself incapable of living up to the expectations for a man in that era.

Written with strong hints of sarcasm, the play is a sometimes uneven mix of drama and broad comedy, held together by an overriding tone of irreverence. Director Natalie Ibu’s snappy production, making good use of a revolving stage, captures the tensions of the sisters’ clashes and then switches seamlessly to something like pantomime, with Nick Blakeley making a couple of appearances as “dames”.

The story of these three women who left an indelible mark on English literature has been told many times before and, in factual terms, Gordon adds little that is new. However, she uses the story as a vehicle for expressing many intriguing ideas and, seen in a production that is acted with conviction and impressively staged, her play is richly entertaining. The National Theatre is on a high at the moment and the clumsily titled Underdog: The Other Other Brontë looks likely to become another another success.

Runs until 25 May 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

A snappy sister act

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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