I arrive at the theatre something of a Brontë virgin, having never read any of the sisters’ books (I know, you’re appalled, but I’m a child of the 60s and I did science at school and university – blame The Two Cultures). As it turns out, this lack of knowledge may have been an advantage.
Theatres spend a lot of time putting on well-known stories (the West End is full of film adaptations and revived shows). During a recent production of Great Expectations I found myself wondering why on earth the theatre was doing it. But then, if you build a palace of culture, I thought smugly, you have to fill it with product. During the interval in the Dickens show, I noticed a couple of people who’d clearly not been to the theatre before, and certainly didn’t know the story, talking about it with great enthusiasm. Then, at the point in act two where Pip returns to the marshes and offers to marry the girl he left behind and discovers she is betrothed to his brother–in-law, one of them shouted “oh no!” in a loud voice. A brief chuckle scattered throughout the auditorium, but it was a supportive, understanding laugh in which we recognised surprise and pleasure in a well-turned story.
Like losing your virginity, you only get that surprise and pleasure once. Ask anyone who’s directed a comedy for the stage. You have to remember the first time you read that comedy as it’s never that funny again. Tragedy, on the other hand, is perpetually hilarious, in rehearsal at least.
So Bolton Octagon took my Brontë virginity, and I was delighted to surrender.
Anne Brontë was only 28 when she wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a book about the consequences of women’s unjust legal subjugation to men and the emotional confusion and distress that often went with it. But not all her men are bad men, and not all her women good.
It’s socially complex and a bit of a thriller, triggered by the arrival in the village of a new tenant at the run-down mansion, Wildfell Hall. Soon the tongues are wagging and, by the end of the first act, Brontë first-timers like me are wondering what on earth the mysterious widow Mrs Graham, the eponymous new tenant, has done to deserve the opprobrious gossip of the village? Could it simply be that she has replaced Eliza, daughter of the Reverned Millward, in the affections of our muscular farmer hero Gilbert Markham, or is there more to it?
All is revealed in act two, of course, and rather satisfactorily. There is an interesting moment which only a Brontë naïf can appreciate where one of the characters may or may not die. If you’ve read the book – as my partner had done – you’re thinking ‘oh, get on with it’ but if you’re me, you’re on tenterhooks.
The cast of eight give fine, nicely detailed performances, but Phoebe Pryce excels as Mrs Graham, a woman with balls, and Natasha Davidson shades Eliza’s move from girlish-intended to woman-scorned brilliantly. There’s a child and a dog in it too, both of whom acquit themselves admirably but don’t steal the show.
Played in the round on a tiny stage, we feel like we’re in the room with the action. Amanda Stoodley’s design evokes a Yorkshire cottage and a country house very simply, with costumes beautifully realised in considerable detail. But the play is transferring York Theatre Royal, a proscenium arch theatre with 900 seats, so that’ll be interesting.
If I have a gripe about the play, it’s only this: Gilbert Markham was a very clean farmer.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton until April 22, 2017. For more information, click here.