This plaguey lockdown has brought changes to us all. It has been hard for many adjusting to this ‘new normal’, but there have also been some new opportunities and heartwarming moments. One thing I’ve absolutely loved has been the superabundance of culture now available for free online. I’m temporarily unable to visit beloved venues such as the National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe and Glyndebourne, but I’ve really enjoyed watching some of their stunning productions online, and all for free.
Unfortunately, the National Theatre’s Jane Eyre play is no longer available to watch – it was brilliantly staged and very well acted, but for me it just failed to hit the heights I’d hoped for – although it was certainly an enjoyable production. In today’s post I’m going to look at some Brontë themed productions that are still available to watch, and I’ll also bring you news of an online talk that I’m giving free next week – it’s free to watch, so I’d love to have you there.
Let’s start by looking at Wasted, which was produced at Southwark Playhouse in Autumn 2018. It’s a musical – I love musicals, so far, so good, and Southwark Playhouse has a great reputation when it comes to them. I saw Funny Girl there a few years ago, with Natasha Barnes standing in for Sheridan Smith as the lead character Fanny Brice.
I was pleased then to see Natasha back and playing another real life character – this time she stars as Charlotte Brontë in a rock musical setting. Yes, Wasted sets the Brontë setting against a rock backdrop – could that really work? Well, I’m pleased to say that in my opinion it does. All musicals make you suspend what you think of as ‘normality’ (just like this plague), after all in real life when you have stabbed someone, lost a loved one, or made a life changing decision you don’t immediately burst into song. You may think that setting the Brontë story against a backdrop of guitars, drums and rock style vocals would be incongruous, but in fact I think it works well and the story of our favourite siblings still comes across loud and clear.
We begin with Charlotte on stage, or Mrs. Nicholls as she introduces herself before informing us that she is expecting a happy event shortly. We then head back to her childhood in Haworth with Anne, Emily and Branwell, and one of the things I loved about this musical is the characterisation that the talented cast instil into their roles. There are some minor quibbles – Anne is portrayed as more self-righteous than she actually was, for example, and at one point we are informed that ‘there are no Catholics in Haworth’, something which was as untrue then as it is now. There’s a little swearing too, but if you’ve watched To Walk Invisible you’ll be used to that.
Those quibbles aside, this is a production with plenty of strengths. Its creative team of Carl Miller (book) and Christopher Ash (music) clearly know the Brontë story well, and have a passion for our favourite writers; this is shown in plentiful little moments borne out by what we know of the Brontës, such as the young Charlotte being called ‘Talli’ by her siblings.
Siobhan Athwal is feistiness personified as a forthright Emily Brontë, while Molly Lynch is a quietly determined and eye catching Anne. Matthew Jacobs Morgan is excellent as Branwell, portraying his youthful arrogance but also showing how his great creative potential is, well, wasted due to factors beyond his control. It’s a moving performance, as is Natasha Barnes’s Charlotte. Barnes is a consummate musical professional, a powerful singer who can take us through the full gamut of emotions, and that’s exactly what she and her fellow cast members do in a little more than two hours with more highs and lows than a rollercoaster ride. It ends, in a reversal of T. S. Eliot’s famous phrase, not with a whimper but a bang. The title track sees the late Brontës lament how their lives have been utterly wasted, but of course we know very different and it’s this that gives this musical a delicious pathos and feverish power. Your lockdown time certainly won’t be wasted if you watch it, and it’s available completely for free at the following link: https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/archive-2018/wasted
YouTube is a great spot for Brontë treats. Some can still be purchased over the internet, so I won’t give the links but among the gems on offer are the 1973 Yorkshire Television series The Brontës Of Haworth and the BBC’s 1983 version of Jane Eyre starring Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton. This, in my opinion, is the very best dramatisation of Charlotte’s work, brimming over with passion and yet completely faithful to its source material.
Unfortunately there’s no To Walk Invisible on iPlayer yet, but there is a real treat for fans of the Brontës and social history in the form of The Brontë Business. First shown in 1977, the brilliant Joan Bakewell travels to Haworth to see how Brontë related tourism is affecting the village they lived in. It’s a fascinating documentary on many levels, and it’s often surprising how very different the village and society was back then. It often looks and feels closer to Victorian times than our own, and the meeting of the Brontë Society committee could have come from a spoof documentary film – and yet it also has its powerful, moving moments as the only woman present tell us tearfully of how there isn’t a day when she doesn’t think about Wuthering Heights. Times change, but the power of the Brontës doesn’t. If you live in the United Kingdom (sorry to everyone reading this abroad as I don’t think iPlayer shows are available overseas) then you can catch the documentary here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p027vyvp/the-bronte-business
We all love reading of course, and due to their age and our copyright laws all the Brontë novels can be downloaded for free on the internet, but there’s a fun new book available for free right now as well. The Governess Of Thornfield is a reworking of Jane Eyre by Charlene DeKalb, and what makes this especially interesting is that it’s a ‘choose your own adventure’ book – if you’re not familiar with this style of book, it means that at regular steps throughout the narrative you have to decide what happens next by selecting from a number of options and choosing which section to turn to. With a number of different endings will Jane live happily ever after with Rochester, or is a different ending waiting for her? You decide. It’s free today, the 21st of June, and can be found on Amazon on both sides of the Atlantic. I’ve downloaded it and look forward to reading it later as I loved this kind of book in my youth. It’s sure to be well executed as the author runs the brilliant Eyre Guide blog and is a fellow Brontë fanatic; this could be a great way to introduce younger readers in your family to Jane Eyre too, or simply a lovely way to pass a few hours.
Finally, on to my Brontë discussion – this Friday, 26th June, at 7.30 pm I will be discussing Crave The Rose: Anne Brontë At 200, In Search Of Anne Brontë and the Brontës in general at the Felixstowe Book Festival. I had hoped to be at this lovely seaside resort in person, but of course all such festivals have been cancelled or suspended, but I’m thrilled that they have moved their events online. On Friday at 7.30 I’ll be discussing the books in conversation with author Ruth Dugdall, after which I’ll be taking questions from an online audience (at a ‘live’ talk I was once asked what bus number ran from Keighley to Haworth, so I hope that one doesn’t crop up again). It’s completely free and you can join in via Zoom using the meeting ID: 858 5444 7275. Zoom is the online meeting app that has taken the world by storm in recent months, and it’s so easy that even I can use it. Don’t worry, you don’t need to go on camera yourself, you can still view the fun – all the details are here – all you have to do is have the Zoom app on your phone, laptop, PC or tablet, press the ‘join meeting’ button and enter the above ID number when prompted. I’ve been talking to myself for the last three months, so please do join in or view if you can as it would be nice to talk to somebody else for once.
Whatever you do during this lockdown, don’t let your time be wasted. Stay happy and healthy and I’ll see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post, and there might even be a bonus mini-post on Friday too.