11 April 2017.
The shock felt by many readers of Anne Brontë’s novel ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ on publication in the mid-nineteenth century is difficult to replicate for a contemporary audience. The book shook a fist at the predominant moral and patriarchal attitudes of that time with its story of Helen Graham, a wronged woman struggling to assert her true self within a tightly ordered and unfair society. However for theatre-goers today the risk is that such a tale finds itself trapped in the now too familiar cosy confines of period drama.
Some elements bode well. Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation trims and refines Brontë’s book with skill and sensitivity. A strong cast keeps energy levels up. Michael Peavoy does a nice line in restrained brooding as Gilbert Markham, Helen’s patient suitor, and a hard-working supporting cast (including the ever reliable Susan Twist) deftly juggle dual roles. Even WC Field’s caution on working with children and animals is seen off by two engaging performances from child and collie alike.
However for all McAndrew’s hard work with the script – the novel’s structure presents tricky staging problems. None more so than a substantial back story recounted in detail through a journal – here unimaginatively evoked via Gilbert wandering the stage at intervals reading Helen’s diary as the story unfolds before us.
Despite revelations of alcoholism, adultery and cruelty the seemingly obligatory wardrobe of bonnets and shawls combined with a lacklustre set (the stage is cluttered with outcrops of fake-looking stone walls) serve to stifle the drama. Why not strip everything back a little and allow the actors space to breathe? It all lacks grit and doesn’t feel rooted in a fully formed time and place. It might well refer to a rough rural society where people are thrown close together through lack of any other distraction but it doesn’t convincingly evoke that context. Similarly the grander setting of Grassdale Manor is lazily signalled by a chaise longue and chandelier (amidst the ever-present piles of fake-looking Yorkshire stone).
Surely Anne Brontë’s achievement deserves a production that breaks rules, challenges the norm and causes a sensation. Instead this is a story stripped of texture – strangled by stodgy staging. It is altogether too tame.