PERCEPTIVE, INTELLIGENT, FIERY, ROMANTIC AND POIGNANT
Written & performed by Mel Dodge
Directed by Lyndee-Jane Rutherford
Presented by Brave Theatre
at Circa Two, Wellington
Until 15 Mar 2014
[1hr 15 mins (no interval)]
Reviewed by John Smythe, 24 Feb 2014
Having declared Jane Austen is Dead in 2008 and again last year, Mel Dodge has now exhumed Charlotte Brontë for our theatrical pleasure. The text of her thoroughly researched and cleverly structured play, Miss Brontë, is 75 percent Brontë, the rest is imagined, and it's all brought together in her a richly layered solo performance, directed with flair by Lyndee-Jane Rutherford.
There were, of course three ‘Miss Brontë' authors: Charlotte, Emily and Anne, born in that order in the first two decades of the 19th century. The play is named for the way Charlotte introduces themselves to their publisher, George Smith, in order to prove they are not their pseudonyms – Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell – let alone one and the same person, as some acerbic critic has asserted.
As we take our seats, a haunted looking, severely corseted and crinoline-clad Charlotte, buttoned up to the neck (costume design by Letty Macphedran), is writing in a tiny notebook. Also tiny are the framed pictures that adorn the off-white walls that stretch either side of a fireplace in the parsonage at Haworth (on the West Yorkshire moors), where every surface is covered with papers and books (set design by Marisa Cuzzolaro).
This sense of smallness and isolation proves a dramatic counterpoint to the liberation she and her sisters achieve through their writing. The play opens with Charlotte recalling the challenge she sets herself to write a heroine “as small and plain as myself” who will be as interesting as the beauteous women of their stories – thus: Jane Eyre.
Amid its treasure trove of insights into the Brontës' lives and times, Miss Brontë goes on to contrast the romance of the intense and finally fulfilled love the governess Jane Eyre held for her employer Mr Rochester, with the doomed reality of Charlotte's secret love for her Belgian teacher Constantin Héger. With his wife, Héger ran a school in Brussels which the sisters attended in 1842. He invited Charlotte back to teach English and became her pupil himself.
Charlotte's older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, both died of tuberculosis in childhood, having suffered from hunger and cold at the school she used as a model for Lowood School in Jane Eyre. She also lost Anne, Emily and their brother Branwell to consumption; their passings poignantly illustrated using a set of toy soldiers. (Their mother had died soon after Anne was born. Their father, an Anglican curate, and poet, writer and polemicist, was rarely home, it seems, and would outlive them all, after Charlotte's death at 38.)
Little wonder, then, that Charlotte is suffering writer's block (not that she calls it that). It seems, despite our regular excursions into Jane Eyre, robustly rendered by Ms Dodge, and the constantly intriguing revelations about the sisters' lives and literary careers, peppered with strong social commentary and including a surprising letter to Charlotte from William Makepeace Thackeray, we are destined to descend into a dark and lonely pit of despair. But no.
The late discovery of an unopened letter sets Charlotte on a lively quest to find a lost manuscript. Physical chaos ensues and the dramatic denouement is simultaneously triumphant, tragic and riddled with moral dilemma. But Charlotte lives on to envision, and begin, her next novel, Villette, in which her beloved Héger will live on.
In the face of published criticism of her for not being feminine enough as a woman writer, Mel Dodge gives Charlotte an impassioned outburst. Those who are inspired, as many must be after seeing this play, to delve further into the life and work of Charlotte Brontë and read Villette – named for the fictitious town ‘abroad', where Lucy Snowe goes to teach in a boarding school – will further relish its exploration of isolation, the repression of individual desire by ‘society' and the triumph of her strength of will in achieving independence and fulfilment.
Perceptive, intelligent, fiery, romantic, poignant and packed into a potent 75 minutes, Miss Brontë deserves to grace stages at festivals around the world. If you're in Wellington, don't miss this chance to discover her story and stories.
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Laurie Atkinson (The Dominion Post);