Review: Brontë, Smock Alley Theatre

A tale of love and loss – the words of Polly Teale are interwoven with excerpts from the iconic Brontë novels to make two hours of a captivating story.

The play is a fascinating watch because it questions what drives people to write, why and if fame matters, and how three young women from the Yorkshire moors made their names as some of the most renowned authors in history.

While the three sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne – certainly lead the production, this is very much a Brontë family drama: we watch their brother Branwell’s descent from a young man full of potential and promise into the depths of alcohol addition, and their father Patrick’s encouragement to better themselves through exploring the world of literature. The actors perform very well together as a whole, have clearly established strong relationships with each other that come across on stage, and all had mastered the regional accent.

I admire how much the cast gets out of Smock Alley’s intimate and minimalistic set at the Boys’ School: with just a few chairs and a table, the Brontës come alive again. We are front-row witnesses to a chaotic family dynamic, both as grief tears them apart and as they learn of their literary success.

Ashleigh Dorrell as Anne Brontë stands out for her ethereal nature and her ability to communicate her character’s thoughts in a quiet way. As Catherine Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights, her otherworldly look becomes ever more haunted and you really do believe she is horrified by the decisions she has made and the person she has become. However I wasn’t particularly keen on Katie McCann donning for all intents and purposes a shower cap to transform from Emily Brontë to Nelly the housekeeper for those scenes, although her matronly concern is well portrayed.

The ‘drunk’ acting by Desmond Eastwood as Branwell is somewhat exaggerated with deafening roars, and when I saw it he accidentally knocked one of the chairs apart as he stumbled raucously around the stage. His youthful bravado is more believable, amplified by the symbolism of his tight curls turning lank and wild as the character battles his addiction. As Heathcliff he conveys a wonderful intimacy with Catherine, complemented by Ashleigh Dorrell’s stellar performance.

For me, the star of this is Ruairí Lenaghan, who plays multiple roles including Patrick Brontë, Charlotte’s tutor Constantin Héger, and Edward Rochester from Jane Eyre. He sinks into each part with seamless authenticity, contending with multiple accents and physical ailments, and shines the most as the shy and earnest Arthur Bell Nicholls. Louise O’Meara is equally at her best as Charlotte Brontë here, playing off the growing fondness and mutual embarrassment between the characters.

One of the most striking elements of the play for me is the exploration of how loss shapes you: perhaps most evident towards the end of the play, when Charlotte is left alone as those closest to her have passed away. Though she feels their physical presence around her, their absence is tangible as she sits alone at her desk.

Overall, I thought it was a wonderful show, suited to both Brontë diehard fans and newcomers. Those who aren’t overly familiar with the books will learn more about the women who wrote them, and those who have devoured every word will consider aspects of the authors’ personalities that they perhaps hadn’t before.

Brontë has a limited run at Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin every evening at 7.30pm until Saturday 11th March. Tickets are €15, or €12 concession. You can book it at smockalley.com/bronte/. This will be followed by performances at the dlr Mill Theatre in Dundrum from Thursday 16th March (8pm) to Saturday 18th March (matinée 1.30pm). Tickets there are €18, or €15 concession, with groups of 8+ at €12. To book, see milltheatre.ie/events/bronte/.

Lead image courtesy of Illustrated Productions/Ste Murray.

This review was also published on Xpose.ie.

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