Saturday, November 19, 2011

We are Three Sisters at the Rose Theatre

“We are three sisters.” It is like an incantation. Surrounded by wind-lashed moorland, with tombstones looming at the window, the Brontë sisters wrote words that would survive them, in the process becoming semi-mythic themselves. Blake Morrison’s play for Northern Broadsides acknowledges the pull that the sisters’ lives still exert, the need to keep repeating and retelling their story.

Morrison draws deliberately on Chekhov’s Three Sisters, transporting events and people from the Brontës’ lives into a Chekhovian framework. It’s an elegant device, particularly because the parallels between the two sets of women were not entirely accidental and Chekhov may, at least in part, have been influenced by the inhabitants of the Haworth parsonage.

Though the play stands up well on its own as a piece of biographical drama, there’s pleasure to be taken in appreciating the many ways Morrison has woven together the Brontës’ world with that of the Prozorovs: the sibling harmonies and rivalries, the proximity of death – both plays begin with the remembering of a parent’s funeral. But it doesn’t adhere to its source too closely, breaking away from the template altogether in the later stages of the play; Morrison refers to it as a “shadow text”, one that inspires rather than dictates.

Though the timeline is condensed, Morrison’s play takes place at the most pivotal point in the sisters’ lives, when their books had finally found publishers and Charlotte in particular was starting to experience the first glow of literary success. This was to prove exposing and disconcerting to Emily who was content to shelter behind her pseudonym and pointedly did not join her sisters on their first tentative journey to London. Though London is a place the sisters ache for, it is a subtler form of longing than Chekhov’s sisters feel for Moscow, and Emily in particular makes her ambivalence felt.

Natasha’s ill-advised green sash in Chekhov’s play has become a dress the colour of limes, a retina-searing garment which stands out a mile next to the palette of matt browns and greys of the Brontës. The dress may as well have been Jezebel red, such is its effect; its wearer, Mrs Lydia Robinson, is Branwell’s older, married lover, here depicted as a cruel and manipulative woman with few redeeming traits (we know she is no good because she’s nasty to Tabby, the Brontës’ frail and ageing housekeeper).

Morrison has his Mrs Robinson paying a fictional visit to the sisters, much to their shock and displeasure. The other interlopers into their guarded world are all men – and all found wanting. John Branwell plays the local doctor, poignantly sporting a soft spot for Anne because she reminds him of her dead mother, whom he once loved. Marc Parry plays a rather feeble curate and director Barrie Rutter plays a self-promoting teacher to generally humorous effect. Fittingly it’s those playing the sisters who stand out. Rebecca Hutchinson’s Anne gets to escape her elder sisters’ shadows and speak of her own hopes; Catherine Kinsella’s Charlotte is the most grounded and subtly ambitious of the three and Sophia di Martino captures Emily’s volatility but also conveys a touch of knowing wit.

The play is less strong at providing social context and the references to events outside the parsonage walls, the Chartist riots for example, often feel heavy-handed; the same can be said of the handling of some of the background biographical detail. Branwell’s rapid decline into a stumbling drunk with a penchant for dipping into the family funds is also rather forced. The play is far better at sketching the tensions between the siblings, as that famous family portrait, with Branwell’s face blotted out by his own hand, watches over them from the far wall.

Rutter’s production can feel a little slow-paced and stiff; it sometimes lumbers rather than glides, and it lacks the energy and physicality of Shared Experience’s exploration of the same narrative ground. But it never feels like mere intellectual exercise; the play has an elegance of expression and an – eventual – emotional power as the three sisters, already coughing ominously, look ahead to their shared future.

Reviewed for Exeunt

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