Polly Teale wrote Brontë in 2005, a play about the famous Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, which chronicles their lives in their isolated parsonage, looking after their ageing father (Colin Burnie) and trying to contain the excesses of their brother Branwell (Craig Finlay).
Thistledown Theatre's performance is in the Old Library, the vaulted room above the University Church. The simple set – a table, some chairs and some books – is all that is required to set the scene.
The play portrays the ebb and flow of sisterly and brotherly love in this close-knit family as the story jumps back and forth in time. We see Charlotte (Layla Al-Katib) and the game she plays as a child with Branwell, whereas Emily (Emily Saddler) and Anne (Holly Gorne) are united at times against their bossy older sister. But it is Anne who goes off with Branwell to try to earn a living (needs must) and it is Anne who accompanies Charlotte down to London to reveal their identities. Branwell wastes his artistic talent and drinks himself to death; Emily and Anne (at least initially) are overshadowed by the sudden startling success of Charlotte's Jane Eyre but are happy for her - and they all keep writing. They all die tragically young: what could have been if they had lived? Questions lie over their legacy: did Charlotte destroy Emily's second book? She certainly partially rewrote some of her poems after Emily died. Anne is the least well-known of the sisters but she is the one who wrote most passionately about social justice, about the limitations placed on women and about the demon: drink. Some of the writing is autobiographical: Charlotte went to a truly dreadful school and lost loved ones from illness brought on by the terrible regime there (her two older sisters Maria and Elizabeth); Charlotte and Anne both worked as governesses.
The play is powerful in showing the parallels between the lives of the authors and their characters. Emily, in particular, is drawn to the character of Cathy (played by Helen Coathup-Collier) – the words tumble out of her in unison with her character. Where did this stay-at-home girl who wandered the moors obtain her understanding of the dark passions that pour out of Wuthering Heights? How does she get so deep into the heart of the troubled Heathcliff (Peter Sheward)? Charlotte's writing is shown as more orthodox: she wants to be loved in the way that Jane Eyre is loved by Mr. Rochester (Peter Sheward again) and in fact only Charlotte ever marries (the curate Arthur Bell Nicholls, played by Henry Cockburn). Although she only lived 9 months after her wedding, she claimed to be very happy in the real world, rather than the world of words. Even Charlotte, though, writes of madness with the character of Mrs. Rochester (Helen Coathup-Collier again).
The acting in Thistledown Theatre's production of this interesting family story was impeccable: the sibling rivalries and affection, the dominance of the father in spite of his frailty, the characters from the books, all weave an unforgettable tale which enthrals and delights.