Viaduct Theatre, Halifax and touring
Opened 13 September, 2011
Watching Blake Morrison’s clever, intelligent play (for the two are quite different qualities), one is amazed that, until the writer and critic Susannah Clapp suggested it to Morrison, no-one had hitherto explored the correspondences between the Brontės of Haworth and the Prozorovs of Chekhov’s classic drama. A trio of female siblings living far removed from the bustling centre of their world, with which they have a relationship that is largely only imaginary; a feckless brother who has squandered his early promise in drink and gaming; a social circle restrictive to the point of claustrophobia; above all, the protagonists’ attempts to channel their intellectual and emotional energies to avoid frustration and atrophy… in this case, of course, by writing.

Morrison is detailed yet witty in his web of analogies. He uses genuine figures from the Brontė sisters’ lives but plays with chronology, invents personalities for the non-family members and sometimes conflates characters from Chekhov. The “lovesick major” Vershinin in Three Sisters, for instance, becomes the “lovesick curate” William Weightman, who also has the main characteristics of the idealistic Tuzenbakh in Chekhov’s play; Dr John Wheelhouse is both his Chekhovian counterpart Chebutykin and the surly Solyony. Branwell Brontė’s sometime employer (and probably lover) Lydia Robinson becomes a caricature even of Chekhov’s Natasha, with Becky Hindley relishing her portrayal of vulgar and misplaced snobbery. Every couple of minutes a line or a brief exchange from Chekhov is recoined in a delicious alloy of familiarity and novelty (“I tell you there are two art schools in London!”), but Morrison also enjoys subverting our expectations by giving cues which he then refuses to pay off. His fourth act departs from Chekhov’s template almost entirely: the characters around the family, like the soldiers stationed near the Prozorovs, all leave, but this is the act in which the Brontė sisters directly address the issues of their writing and its success, and their authorial identities… and two of them visit London, which is two more than made it to Moscow in the original.

Barrie Rutter’s Northern Broadsides company, concerned as it is equally with the classics and with a distinctive Yorkshire performance identity, is an ideal match for the play; Rutter directs with deftness and plays the buffoonish teacher. And Morrison throws new light from one point on to two great literary families, one historical, the other fictional.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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