Brontë by Polly Teale

By Polly Teale
“The word. It is this alone which separates us from animals. The
power not only to live but to know that we are living. That is to
think. To shape ourselves. To make of our lives what we would.
To inspire others with what we say, what we believe. Look to
God, to the great men of history. Look to art, to literature.”
Lucy Kempster – Director
Aside from being involved in the 24 hour musical publicity team, where I remember
walking into town in a neon yellow t-shirt and sandwich board singing “Who will buy my wonderful tickets”… I got properly bit by the SuTCo bug last semester when I
auditioned for Equus and the character Hesther Salomon took over my life. Working
alongside a fantastic cast and production team (including the lovely James Donnelly now
my PM) made me want to continue to stay involved with SuTCo. Not only did I learn
how SuTCo works from the inside out but I could see how everyone genuinely cared
about making good theatre and although we’re technically an amateur theatre company
this does NOT reflect the standard of our productions.
Outside of SuTCo I have co-directed and abridged Shakespeare plays with primary
school aged children. This has meant for the past few years I have been involved with
the casting and rehearsal process and have run after school workshops so have a good
understanding of how to get from text to performance. I have also been involved with a
recent production at the Crucible called Fanfared with Leeds bases company ‘Invisible
Flock’, again giving me a greater knowledge of how a professional theatre company
should run. And so now the plan is to bring Brontë to life, and hopefully convince you
all why it’s such a beautiful piece of theatre.
James Donnelly – Production Manager
I have been a member of SuTCo for coming on 3 years now and although I've never
officially fulfilled the role of Production Manager before, I have done some stand in
work which shows that I am equal to any task I put myself to. In addition to my work
with SuTCo I have also had experience at working within a professional theatre
environment for the past two summers, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. This I feel
gives me a good base of knowledge to work from and will allow us as a production team
to conduct ourselves in a professional manner.
I really relish the prospect of working on such a show as Bronte, simply because it has
the potential, as well as being theatrically moving, to be technically stunning too. In terms
of backstage work, this would be a very exiting show to be a part of, from the postromantic/gothic interior of the stage set, to the wonderful period costume; and the
chance for lighting and sound designers to create a mood that reflects the turmoil of the
events that unfold; this is a piece of theatre that will offer a fantastic challenge to those
that want to get involved with the technical elements of production.
Together we’d like to propose Brontë, because we think it could be simply amazing.
Brontë was written and directed in 2005 by Polly Teale. It was later revived by Shared
Experience Theatre Company in 2010. This contemporary play explores in two acts how
three Victorian sisters living in isolation on the Yorkshire Moors came to write some of
the most powerful and passionate fiction of all time. With the present tense set in 1845
we see both the real and imagined worlds of Charlotte, Emily and Anne as their fictional
characters come to haunt their creators and how they are affected by their brother
Branwell's descent into alcoholism and insanity. It also looks at how their father, Patrick
Brontë, an Irish priest, influenced their writings by encouraging the girls to read from a
young age.
Without a chronological structure, the characters move back and forth in time recounting
scenes from their lives both as documented and as imagined by the author. The play also
shows the difficulties the writers had in their private and literary lives, not least of which
was the chauvinistic attitude present in Victorian society, the hardship of life as an
unmarried woman and the poor health of all of all four of them which lead to their
untimely deaths.
The play begins with three actresses in modern dress discussing the Brontës and their
work. As they put on their costumes they assume the identities of Emily, Charlotte and
Anne. Throughout the play, the story of the three women and their brother is entwined
with appearances from the characters they created – the sisters reading from their books
take on the persona of their own characters. Alongside this two other characters – Bertha
and Cathy appear to help bring the novels to life.
Just to clarify because this all seems a little confusing Actress – plays Charlotte – plays Jane Eyre
Actress – plays Emily – plays Nelly
Actress – plays Anne – plays Mrs Huntingdon
Actor – plays Branwell – also plays Rochester/Mr Heger/Arthur Bell Nicholls
Actor – plays Patrick – also plays Heathcliffe/Arthur Huntingdon
So male to female ratio is 5:2.
(Phew. Any other characters I’ve forgotten will be played by James Donnelly dressed in a
full length skirt and corset…)
Charlotte Brontë (Jane)–
Intriguing and sometimes stubborn Charlotte is the most well-known of the Brontë
sisters perhaps because of Jane Eyre. I’m reluctant to define her character too much
because so much of it will depend on the relationship developed between her and the
rest of the family, especially Branwell. She is however the eldest and this should come
across in her confident manner, it is also clear she struggles with the restrictions made on
her life – constantly dealing with the conflicting need to write and to uphold those
expectations put on her she is a woman ahead of her time. She says writes to become
invisible and yet desperately wishes to be “forever known” and craves the same kind of
freedom her brother is allowed, which leads to tensions rising between them.
Emily Brontë (Nelly)–
Again a strong willed character that often clashes with Charlotte, she writes to escape the
world she struggles to feel a part of. Whilst Charlotte believes and encourages Emily to
publish her work, Emily’s character is much more insular. As she reads from her work
Wuthering Heights she takes on the role of Nelly and we see her become truly engrossed in
the world she has created. Less impulsive than Charlotte, Emily is more of a thinker and
determined to remain unknown.
Anne Brontë (Helen Huntingdon) –
In the opening scene the actress playing Anne admits “I am not so interesting to you…
my books will be read as background to their great works” which is why I think Anne is
such a fascinating character to bring to life. Sensitive and observant, she does her best to
fulfill the duties expected of her and towards the end of the play she is the one who
questions “Do you ever wonder what our lives would have been like had we never put
pen to paper?” Her book – The Tenant of Wildfell hall is said to be the most shocking of
all the Brontë novels which proves her character has more depth than it may first appear
on the page.
Branwell Brontë (Rochester/Mr Heger/Arthur Bell Nicholls) –
Desperate to prove himself but constantly overshadowed by his sisters, Branwell’s
character returns in 1845, drunk and in disgrace. He slips further into alcoholism and
eventually a madness which brings chaos to the household. Intensely close with
Charlotte, their relationship appears to be bordering that of a sexual one. The scenes
where Branwell is shown as a child show him as instinctive and loud but it is clear he
lacks the same interest in writing as his sisters.
Rochester is the protagonist from Charlotte’s novel Jane Eyre and Mr Heger is her
previous school teacher who encourages her to write more passionately. Arthur Bell
Nicholls is Patricks curate – an elderly man, who is well read, serious minded and familiar
with the Brontë family.
Patrick Brontë (Heathcliffe/Arthur Huntingdon) –
Irish accents welcome. Patrick is a tolerant and attentive father, and we see him in his
youth encouraging his children to write and read. Later, after the death of his wife and
child he becomes more reclusive and suffers from cataracts which impair his eyesight so
badly he has to use a stick to navigate his way round. A man with authority, he is
respected and loved by his children.
Heathcliffe is from Emily’s only novel Wuthering Heights and Arthur Huntingdon from
Anne’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Bertha –
Also known as the mad woman in the attic from Jane Eyre she is a manifestation of all
the desires that Charlotte represses. An extremely intense, physical and sexual character,
she appears throughout, almost to taunt Charlotte at her most weak. Often referred to as
exotic, her performance should be raw and emotional.
Cathy –
Almost dreamlike and ethereal in her nature, Cathy from Wuthering Heights is Emily’s
creation. Almost like Emily’s imaginary friend, there is a childlike quality to her character
which adds to the idea of escapism. One of the most beautiful moments in the entire
play is Emily’s death, where Cathy appears and speaks lines from the novel to accompany
the moment where she passes away. The reoccurring images of feathers and birds that
often appear in her speech throughout remind us of Emily’s need to leave behind the
disorder of her family – and as Cathy closes the play with “Fly. Fly. Fly away from here.
You must be gone. Away. Away now quickly before they catch you” – we are not left
with the image of the actors, nor the Brontë family, but the characters they created, as in
truth, this is all that remains of them today.
Obviously we would like to make use of a set designer who will hopefully become as
excited as we are about the potential for this play. There are a couple of ideas which I
would be interested to see developed properly by a set designer which are …wait for it…
defined areas of stage for each of the characters and a general museum-esque
atmosphere. On paper this doesn’t sound as exciting as it should which is why we need a
set designer to bring it all together. These defined areas of stage don’t need to be
naturalistically accurate spaces but rather metaphorical representations of the characters –
the reason for this being to help make the action clearer and also to add to the sense that
we are watching a museum come to life.
There are certain rooms which I feel need to be present – the kitchen for one where
most of the main action takes place and an area which in my head is known as “Bertha’s
space”. I have an image of this space in my mind where it is littered with torn/burnt
pages and old books, with perhaps a block where Bertha sits for most of the
If you’d like us to discuss this further please ask because we do have ideas and obviously
we’d like to all agree on the general atmosphere, otherwise we’re happy to really let our
set designer run free on this one.
Ready SET Go you might say…. Or you might not. Moving on.
Lights, Costume, Action
As with the set design, we don’t pretend to have all the answers for a lighting design, nor
would we want to, because where’s the fun in that… but again to give you a general idea
of the things we think are important to make the piece feel like it all works as one –
If areas of stage are defined for certain characters or moments of the play it
would also follow that the lighting should add to this separation and definition. When
illuminating, for example “Bertha’s space”, the lighting designer should be aware of the
intensity of her character’s scenes compared to the more naturalistic atmosphere in the
kitchen. Not that I’m simply suggesting a big red spotlight for Bertha and a yellow one
for the kitchen – but you get the idea.
It is also important to note that lights will be integral to scene changes and also
signifying changes in time, and this happens throughout. So the design will need to have
the ability to make this change quickly and clearly for various scenes. This play gives you
the chance to work with deeply intense and passionate moments, as well as more tender
and dreamlike sequences. There is a lot of scope to play with here, and we can’t wait to
see what ideas a lighting designer can bring to the table.
Once again, if this is not clear enough we do have other ideas, but for the moment, we’d
like to leave it in your (whoever you might end up being) capable hands and also to
discuss with the set designer how these two technical elements should work together.
In the opening scene the actors change from modern clothes (I was thinking Burberry,
jeggings and leg warmers… I’m kidding) to more traditional period costume. Whilst the
costumes should give a clear sense of the time period, the accuracy of them can be
questionable – the audience are aware from the very beginning they are watching a
performance. Hopefully a costume designer will be able to take this on board and come
up with a close enough representation of the period.
This script does like to jump around the timeline and so physicality is going to be really
important for all the actors so the audience notice the changes in age as well as character.
As a director I would dedicate time to working on this specifically. I would also like even
the characters of Cathy and Bertha have a wild, physical nature to them to create the
sense that we really are bringing the pages of their books to life.
Other exciting news which will hopefully help to tie the piece together and make
sense of each of the different characters is the use of music. I am currently working with
ex-Sheffield student Rob Henry to create an original score for the play, an example of
which I should be able to bring along to the proposals. Rather than using clips of music I
found off the internet and trying to make them fit the scenes, I decided to ask Rob to
create this with me so I could work with the scenes as they develop and really give
Brontë the intensity and originality it deserves. I shall leave you in suspense as to how it
sounds for now. So turn up to proposals to hear more…
(Oh, and for those of you that don’t know and are interested – Rob is my
boyfriend and to give you an idea of what he’s like – he has spent over £100 on
earphones - so is technically a audiophile and has been playing piano for over ten years. I
didn’t just find him off the street.)
Finally it is also vital for me that this family does genuinely feel like a family, for all their
bickering’s and rising tension they are obviously close and without a doubt care deeply
about one another. The closer the family seems for the audience will hopefully mean the
more they get emotional invested in the characters. When each of the sister’s passes away
in the script, it is not just the loss of a character, but the loss of a real life, if only in the
past. Each death should be a significant and poignant moment because we are not just
dealing with fictitious characters, but the real lives of the Brontë family.
Why Bronte?
Brontë was written with in the last ten years and has a contemporary tone which I think
will attract today’s audiences towards it. The name Brontë is also one which many people
will have heard of and when it comes to selling tickets, it’s important to make use of
people’s natural curiosity
At its basic level, this play is about a dysfunctional family, an idea which is both
accessible and relatable to many people. I don’t pretend to be in love with Jane Eyre or
Wuthering Heights or claim to know every angle of the novels, but I am fascinated by
these characters in terms of their real, human qualities and I believe that is what will
interest most people. This isn’t about recreating Jane Eyre but about the people and their
relationships and how their lives lead them to write both passionate and heartfelt
literature which still has meaning even today.
In terms of the characters I know myself from an actor’s point of view how
interesting they are to play. Not only does this play allow the actors to explore the family
as a unit and at different points in their life but there is also the opportunity to bring the
sisters characters to life – visceral and powerful, these characters refuse to hold anything
back and are the purest and most emotive manifestation of the sister’s conscience.
And finally we mustn’t forget they were real. Whilst this play admits it is a fictitious and
imagined story, these were real people who lived just fifty miles away. The Brontë
parsonage museum sits still a few miles away in Haworth. And so the public will have
heard of the name and this play is a chance to read their diaries – which is nice when we
want to sell tickets.
We have copies of their novels sitting in our bookshelves and countless
documentaries on them but even more than that we have the peaks – we can look
outside our windows and see the same hills and valleys that they would have walked
across. It’s not often we get to produce something which so closely connects to where
we are now.
They were here.
Other Important things
We’d quite like to put Brontë on in Week 1 or 3 so that James doesn’t fail his degree and
I don’t screw up my second year…
The rights for the play are £64 + VAT which comes to £76.80 per performance.
The lovely people at Nick Hern would also like us to buy copies of the script for the cast
and are offering them at £8.09. And when I say “would like” what I mean is – a
condition of the rights is… Now we would need 7 copies which at their price = £56.63.
But if we can find them cheaper – and we can – they are happy for us to purchase them
anywhere. So that’s would be a one off payment of about £42.
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