BWW Review: BRONTË: THE WORLD WITHOUT Explores the Genius and the Passion of Three Iconic Sisters

BWW Review: BRONTË: THE WORLD WITHOUT Explores the Genius and the Passion of Three Iconic Sisters

Thursday evening marked the world premiere of BRONTË: THE WORLD WITHOUT at the Stratford Festival's Studio Theatre. Written by Jordi Mand, and developed in the Stratford Festival's Laboratory, this piece explores the relationship between Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë, as well as the brilliance and passion for writing that each sister possessed. Director Vanessa Porteous and the small but mighty cast of Beryl Bain, Jessica B. Hill, and Andrea Rankin explore the genius, jealousy, and genuine love of writing and of each other shared by these iconic sisters.

Set inside the Brontë home for the duration of the play, this production is certainly not a flashy one. Instead, it focuses on the raw honesty of the emotions and realities the sisters fare experiencing. Of course, we do not have a plethora of material about these women, and what we do have, is primarily from the perspective of Charlotte. The playwright therefore must take some liberties in order to explore what life was like in the Brontë household. The playwright, director, and actors fully commit to telling this story and it does feel very authentic because it comes from a place of struggle and of passion.

Designer Narda McCarroll has created the perfect concept for the Brontë homestead. On the floor tiles, on the couch fabric and chair cushions, on the pictures framed on the wall-just about everywhere, is writing. The handwriting is different too, symbolizing the three different authors. This clever design represents how integral writing is to the sisters. They eat, sleep, and breathe it. It is woven into the fabric of their every day lives...literally.

Another clever touch is the use of music during scenes without dialogue where we see the sisters working on their novels. The music is all by female singer songwriters who, one could argue, possess a similar 'vibe' in this day and age to what the Brontë sisters possessed in their day.

The performances are all great. All three actresses bring life to their characters and have a spot on sisterly chemistry with one another. Beryl Bain brings wisdom and strength to the character of Charlotte Brontë. It is clear the character feels the weight of her family on her shoulders, and when her eyesight declines, we really only hear about it from the other characters. Charlotte's focus is always on the family and/or her writing. As Emily, Jessica B. Hill takes on the challenge or portraying a bit of an enigma. There is limited information out there about the reclusive author of "Wuthering Heights" and there are some who believe that the information that is available is a sort of re-imagining of Emily by Charlotte. The choice is made in this production to explore Emily's struggle with anxiety. She has a panic attack when she discovers that her sister has read her poetry, and based on how her sisters react, we are to assume that she has struggled with this before. There is also mention of her becoming ill whenever she has tried to leave home for a period of time. It is interesting that when Emily has a coughing fit due to Tuberculosis later in the play, it initially presents quite similarly to her panic attack-perhaps causing some confusion to her siblings about what is actually wrong. The way this is presented amplifies the idea that throughout her entire life, Emily was plagued with struggles and health issues that those around her did not quite understand. Hill's portrayal of Emily is that of a tortured yet brilliant and loving soul who writes because she has to-to the point where she does not even (initially) need to have her work seen by anyone.

As Anne, the youngest of the three sisters, Andrea Rankin plays the role of baby of the family very well. She is close with Emily but they still playfully fight, and her emotional distance from Charlotte seems to come from a place of insecurity in her fear of being compared to her. Rankin brings humour to the role as Anne impatiently awaits Charlotte's return so that the three sisters can open a piece of mail and find out if a publisher has chosen to go forward with any of their books. She tugs at the heart strings as she desperately tries to carve her own place in history.

The first half of the play is primarily an introduction to these three characters and their dynamics with one another. It ends with them realizing that perhaps their passion for writing could help bring in the money they desperately need for their father's eye operation. The second half has them all feverishly writing and jealously eyeing the reviews that they each are (or are not) receiving. The competitiveness of each woman is fascinating to observe. Whereas the competition seems to spur Charlotte on, it sends Emily into an introspective tailspin wherein she focuses on, and collects the most scathing reviews of "Wuthering Heights". What is devastating is that had she not gotten sick, that tailspin likely would have eventually produced another classic novel. Anne just wants to be noticed, her fear being that she will not be remembered at all. These emotions are all very relatable and each sister's respective struggle resonates with the audience in different ways.

I will note that this play will likely be best enjoyed by a rather specific audience-those who have an interest in the lives of the Brontë sisters, but do not know a great deal about them. I personally fit that description perfectly, but there will be some folks who may not find the content to be quite as captivating. Others may contest the characterization of these women, based on the ideas they have previously formulated on their own.

A friend of mine, who knows everything there is to know about the Brontës, plans to see this production later in the season. I am very curious to hear what she thinks about it. Regardless, the audience of the production's opening night seemed to be very moved by the tragic yet inspiring story of these three sisters who made a living doing what they loved.

BRONTE: THE WORLD WITHOUT continues in repertory at the Studio Theatre until October 13th.

Photo Credit: Hilary Gauld Camilleri

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