Tricycle Theatre, London NW6
Opened 6 April, 2011

Shared Experience are probably the highest-profile theatre company to lose the entirety of their subvention from the Arts Council of England in the recently announced funding round; on press night co-artistic director Nancy Meckler, who also directed this production, made an appeal at curtain-call for statements of support to bolster the company’s case. And yet, sad as it would be to see them disappear, I cannot convince myself that they are entirely compelling candidates for extraordinary reprieve.
They have proven so influential in their approach of wedding text-based work to more impressionistic visual sequences that there is little need for the originators to persist, and in any case it’s an easy approach to muff: at times here, the young company (with whom Meckler is working at the invitation of the Watermill Theatre near Newbury) seem a little sheepish in their twirling-about moments. It also feels (a little inaccurately, but only a little) as if the company has been ploughing the same furrow for a few years now, material-wise. Polly Teale’s dramatic biography of the literary sisters was premiered in 2005, shortly after her After Mrs Rochester mused on the Charlotte Brontė-influenced Jean Rhys and shortly before the company revived her adaptation of Jane Eyre itself. The emerging social identity of women in literature, both on the page and as authors, seems to be the company’s principal thematic field, and once again it’s not a severely under-cultivated one.
The opening 20 minutes or so can require a little effort in attunement: establishing the style of the piece and the baseline of biographical information results in some unsubtleties. However, one comes to accept the episodes in which Emily interacts with Cathy from Wuthering Heights or Charlotte is tarantella’d-around by the first Mrs Rochester, symbolising the sensual life which the author considers closed to her. The company of six work hard, with the non-sister players each taking multiple roles: Mark Edel-Hunt, for instance, in one of Branwell Brontė’s drunken scenes pre-echoes almost slurred-verbatim a moment from The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall which he later enacts with Flora Nicholson as Anne and/or her protagonist. In the circumstances, it feels as if faint or even moderate praise is damning, but more than moderate praise would be excessive.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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