Anne Brontë is often most remembered as the youngest of the Brontë sisters with the publication of her controversial novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall struggling to shift focus away from her older sisters Emily and Charlotte. In honour of the Anne Brontë Bicentenary celebrations this year, writer Cate Whittaker hopes to awaken a new love for Anne’s work with this biographical play.
The Brontës were not a wealthy family and, after the deaths of their mother and two oldest sisters, the children lived in relative isolation under the care of their curate father (Marlon Lowrencev) and aunt (Gabrielle Green). The siblings, including brother Branwell (Jeremy Lowrencev), were close but difficulties with finding work drove Branwell to drinking and gambling which threatened the family’s security. From here the sisters began publishing poetry under pseudonyms and eventually moved on to novels for which they are largely known today.
Whittaker’s script pays close biographical attention to the Brontë family from the early 1840s until after Emily (Rose Treloar) and Anne’s (Bedelia Lowrencev) deaths in 1848 and 1849 respectively. Whittaker imagines grand conversations the sisters would have had about love, marriage, fate, religion, and life’s purpose but also the minutiae of dog fights and bookkeeping. While the intention of the production is to spotlight Anne’s voice, the scope of the script is quite broad, encompassing the general atmosphere of the Brontës’ parlour room. More than exploring Anne’s unique early feminism, the script tends to focus on Emily’s tumultuous life including the mysterious death of her young lover, her rivalry both personal and literary with Charlotte (Heather Tleige), and her complex relationship with Branwell. While Anne is afforded a moment to stand-up to Charlotte’s belittling, she spends the majority of the production huddled next to housemaid Tabby (Cathy Friend) and offering up her assistance to her sisters’ troubles, very much mirroring the historical sidelining of Anne that this production hoped to rectify.
Otherwise, direction from Elizabeth Lowrencev uncovers the tensions underpinning the famous literary family with the group regularly gathered under each others’ feet in the parlour. The particular strain of family life was aptly demonstrated in Charlotte’s petty cruelty towards Tabby but her absolute fear of being left alone. Tleige plays a harsh older sister who redirects the pressure of her position into bossiness and severity. Treloar as Emily is much more energetic and free-willed, desiring freedom above all other things. With Lowrencev’s gentle Anne, the two perform an easy kinship that is more in-tune with what audiences imagine of the sisters than perhaps what was the reality.
Set and costume design are simple period pieces that emphasise the family’s humble social position but also focuses attention on the conversations as representative of the characters’ imaginative and inquisitive minds; minds that resonated widely during their lifetimes but even further after the sisters’ deaths. Particularly with Anne’s interest in women’s rights and their autonomy after marriage as explored in her one novel, the Brontës were influential voices in early feminist thought, telling stories that many others were unwilling to acknowledge.
The Lost Voice of Anne Brontë ran at Tom Mann Theatre from January 31st – February 2nd. Later this year the production will tour to the UK for Brontë 200 celebrations.