wed 22/05/2024

Underdog: the Other, Other Brontë, National Theatre review - enjoyably comic if caricatured sibling rivalry | reviews, news & interviews

Underdog: the Other, Other Brontë, National Theatre review - enjoyably comic if caricatured sibling rivalry

Underdog: the Other, Other Brontë, National Theatre review - enjoyably comic if caricatured sibling rivalry

Gemma Whelan discovers a mean streak under Charlotte's respectable bonnet

Emily (Adele James), Charlotte (Gemma Whelan) and Anne (Rhiannon Clements) in a sisterly momentIsha Shah

The Brontë sisters and their ne'er-do-well brother will always make good copy. The brilliance of the women constrained by life in a Yorkshire parsonage contrasts dramatically with the wild moors around their home, while their early deaths lend romance and tragedy to their life stories. Mythologised they may be, but their strength and determination are indisputable; to be successfully published novelists, albeit to begin with under men's names, was a notable feat.

Charlotte, Emily and Anne cannot but be feminist heroines.

In her new play, which won the Nick Darke Award in 2020, Sarah Gordon strips away some of the accumulated myths and presents them as fallible people as seen through modern eyes. Charlotte, the eldest sister and the first to be recognised (mainly because Emily and Anne were not so lucky with their publisher), selfishly hogs the limelight, even stealing ideas from Anne and suppressing the second printing of her shocking but successful novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Anne is always "the third sister" despite often having the best ideas, including (in the play) inventing the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Emily, an angry genius, is less of a threat to Charlotte who apparently does her best to keep Anne down.

There may well be some truth in this. It is clear that Anne's work, regarded as coarse and vulgar because it dealt realistically with such unladylike subjects as domestic cruelty, broken marriage, alcoholism and substance abuse (observed at close hand in brother Branwell), now seems the most innovative, the most "modern" of all. Perhaps Charlotte was jealous of the success of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or perhaps she was anxious to protect her sister's reputation after her death at the age of 29. Or both.

Nick Blakeley as Elizabeth Gaskell in Underdog: the Other, Other BrontëGemma Whelan as Charlotte sets the tone by erupting into the Dorfman on her way to the stage, stopping off to challenge men to name their favourite Brontë novel. The answer always seems to be Jane Eyre. In this co-production with Northern Stage, Natalie Ibu's speedy direction fits the light-hearted, often caricatured storytelling, the audience always knowingly acknowledged. Weighty topics crop up - the struggles of women, alcoholism, poverty, death from tuberculosis - but there is scarcely time for nuance. Whelan (known for Game of Thrones and Upstart Crow) is a fire-cracker, rarely still, very funny, cursing and swearing in contemporary style, given at last a moment's realisation of the importance of sisterly affection when all her siblings are dead. Feeling she has failed as a woman makes success as an author doubly important. Outspoken Emily (Adele James) and pretty, sincere Anne (Rhiannon Clements) are less frenzied, more simply drawn as foils to Charlotte.

The all-male backing ensemble is made up of weak, venal or superficial men, all played for laughs. Nick Blakely (pictured above, left) enthusiastically becomes the occasional jokily bustled female, including Charlotte's biographer Mrs Gaskell.

Gordon and Ibu (aided by designer Grace Smart) seem keen to skewer all the clichés of costume drama. The London coach (two enormous wheels complete with clacking coconut shell sound effects), slowly gliding on the revolve, gets an enormous reception from the audience. It is beside the point of course that Charlotte and Anne travelled by up-to-date train to confront publishers who had wrongly attributed the novels of the other sisters to Charlotte.

The title refers to Anne, but the play is Charlotte's, albeit a Charlotte unlike any previously explored iteration of her - frantic, self-absorbed and sometimes obtuse. Nevertheless, Gordon's work will contribute to Anne's growing reputation as the Brontë with the most to say to the 21st-century reader.

@heathermneill

Whelan is a fire-cracker, rarely still, very funny, cursing and swearing in contemporary style

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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