DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Underdog: The Other Other Brontë – Northern Stage, Newcastle

Reviewer: Jonathan Cash

Writer: Sarah Gordon

Director: Natalie Ibu

It is paradoxical that three spinster sisters, living in genteel poverty in a Yorkshire parsonage, and with the limited life experience available to unmarried ladies of the time, should have written some of the most passionate, vivid and enduring novels in English literature. Though all three died young, Charlotte lived the longest and is responsible for much of what we believe to be true about the lives of Haworth’s iconic three sisters.

The play opens on Grace Smart’s beautiful depiction of a Yorkshire hillside. Gemma Whelan’s Charlotte commands the stage, thereby establishing herself as the chronicler. The hillside almost miraculously lifts around her, becoming a rugged ceiling to the action, which takes place chiefly on a bare stage. Presumably, this is meant to symbolise the influence of the landscape on the lives and work of the sisters.

Charlotte introduces Adele James’ Emily, and Rhiannon Clements’ Anne and the characters are quickly established. Anne is sweet and obliging, passionate about her writing but otherwise inclined to bend to the will of her more forceful siblings. Emily is fiercely private, with no interest in celebrity, and Charlotte is eager to establish herself in the literary firmament with an enduring legacy.

The three must fight a male-dominated literary establishment to publish their work, settling on the use of male pseudonyms. They are not only fighting the establishment; they are fighting among themselves, jockeying for position, as Charlotte contrives to publish first, her Jane Eyre effectively overshadowing Anne’s Agnes Grey, written earlier but delayed by an unscrupulous publisher, since both tell the story of a plain governess fighting an unjust society to make her way in the world.

After her sisters’ death, Charlotte having stepped from behind her male pseudonym, sets out to tell the sisters’ story in her own fashion, cementing her legacy and even preventing the republication of Anne’s most successful novel. The audience are given occasional hints that Charlotte’s storytelling may be unreliable, but it is unclear whether we are meant to be seeing the sisters through her eyes. Anne’s and Emily’s characters seem chiefly to be as we gather Charlotte depicted them after her death but she would hardly have portrayed her own character to be as domineering and self-interested as she is seen here.

The story of the women’s literary travails and their unfulfilled passions are played out in modern, uninhibited language that would likely have curled the hair of any 19th century lady. Much is made of their struggles against male oppression and of the feminist nature of some of their writing, though little indication of the actual power of the sisters’ writing is given. This places the emphasis on the social history and the feminist elements of the story, rather than the truth of characters themselves. This is justifiable, of course, but it makes the whole piece less involving than might have been hoped. The script is lively, irreverent and literate but the production does lag at times, despite a number of effective comic moments.

Nevertheless, the performances are uniformly excellent. Whelan is a powerhouse and manages to invest Charlotte with humour and some humanity. Clements is sincere and sympathetic as the put-upon Anne. Perhaps James’ Emily is rather assertive, given the reticence of her character as described, but that could be justified by considering the passion in her writing. James Phoon is given little to do but look brooding and dissolute as their alcoholic brother, Branwell.

Phoon and three other male actors play all the other parts. There are a number of amusing touches in the way they work, at times, like a Greek chorus. Julian Moore-Cook invests the two men for whom Charlotte had unrequited romantic feelings with a convincing aura of period machismo and Nick Blakeley gives delightfully arch sketches of Anne’s lady employer and Elizabeth Gaskell, the novelist who became Charlotte’s biographer.

Overall, this is an interesting portrayal of the lives and the social landscape of three important and fascinating writers. If it doesn’t entirely get to the heart of their characters, well, that is really the point of the play. As Samantha Ellis states in the programme, “We might be telling different stories about the Brontës if Anne had been the survivor.”

Runs until 22 June 2024

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. 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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