The Bolton Octagon
This was how I imagine dinner theatre might feel but without tables and without food. Anne Brontë wrote this gritty portrayal of married life in 1848 in which she spoke passionately about domestic abuse, alcoholism and women’s rights. Two hundred years on those issues are still relevant and still require our consideration, however a modern audience is perhaps much harder to shock. Deborah McAndrew has done a very effective job of adapting this weighty classic for the stage however it a solid rendering rather a stimulating and passionate portrayal.
Phoebe Pryce is very believable as the stoic and driven Helen. She is an intelligent and independent woman who is determined to shield her young son from the excesses of his fathers hedonistic lifestyle. The first half of the play sees her disguised as the widow Mrs Graham who in her desperation to remain hidden is so unsociable that she generates a storm of gossip and speculation in the quiet rural community around Wildfell. Prickly and intelligent she is a world away from the dull and vapid females who sip tea and delight in local gossip rather than art or literature.
In the second half we revisit her unhappy marriage through the device of her lovelorn suitor reading her diary. Here we see an immature young woman infatuated with her new husband the charming but dastardly Arthur played with aplomb by Marc Small. Unlike her friends Helen is not prepared to accept a bad marriage and escapes with her only financial security being her ability as a landscape artist. Set in the 1820s this is the act of a strong and deeply wounded women so it is difficult to believe either her quickly falling for another man or her choice to return to Grassdale Manor to nurse her ailing husband.
Gilbert Markham initially appears dull and dependable but is perhaps stifled by the society he is surrounded by – epitomising a man whose best friend truly is his dog. Michael Peavoy is well cast as the quietly handsome farmer who finds his love and admiration finally reciprocated. It is very telling that the rather fabulous Sancho the sheepdog is discarded in the second act as the farmer falls more deeply in love.
The other performances are all reliable and rise to the challenge of playing dual roles as the action moves to Grassdale Manor. The younger females are mainly either sweet and vapid or vindictive and petulant whereas the older women are bossy and opinionated or careworn and stoic. The menfolk are also a mixed bag of flawed characters. The local cleric stood out as adding a comedic element as an ale loving Irish buffoon. Colin Connor kept the audience amused though at times his performance felt too much like a nod to Ian Paisley and Mrs Brown.
The set was disappointing as the fake dry stone walls felt more suited to Wuthering Heights. The fire was a cosy touch of the safety of home and hearth but the move to portray Helens marital home felt lazy and did little to convey the luxury she gave up in order to have her independence.
It is a clever move to adapt a classic for the stage as it often acts to reassure a prospective audience that their investment of time and money is a safe one. This is especially apt as this piece still has a lot to say in modern society and it may create curiosity as it is written by the lesser known but most radical Brontë sister. Anne was only 29 when she died and this her last novel was published less than a year before her death. It was a brave and shocking novel for its time and after her sisters death Charlotte Brontë chose to suppress a proposed third edition citing the subject matter as inconsistent with her sisters “reserved and dejected nature”. Perhaps living in her own claustrophobic community with an opinionated Northern Irish cleric as a father and a carousing alcoholic for a brother she had good reason to feel dejected and frustrated. Like her heroine she sought financial independence through her own artistic abilities so thumbs up to Deborah McAndrew and Artistic Director Elizabeth Newman for allowing her to speak to a new audience.
At The Bolton Octagon until April 22nd, then touring.