By Jen Silverman; Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Siren Theatre Co & Seymour Centre; Directed by Kate Gaul6 Feb to 1 March 2019;
Reviewed : 14 February, 2019.
Jen Silverman invokes the troubled but tenacious heroines of the Brontë sisters’ novels – and the lives of the sisters themselves – in this melodramatic/absurd/black comedy set on the bleak English moors. Using the ‘cover’ of the oppressive restraints and limitations experienced by women in the nineteenth century, Silverman raises still relevant issues of gender, class, sexuality and repression.
She assembles her characters in true Brontë style. Two sisters, Agatha and Huldey, live a tense, lonely, austere life in an isolated cottage on the moors. Their only company is their ill-treated dog, Mastiff, and a strange all-purpose maid, who changes name and personality as she moves from scullery to kitchen to parlour. A governess, arrives, lured by a stylishly written offer of work purportedly from their brother, Branwell, who is boarded up, like Mrs Rochester, in an attic room.
As the play evolves, the real eccentricities and temperaments of the characters, including the poor the dog, are revealed.
Director Kate Gaul uses a shiny, dark revolve to symbolise the treadmill from which the characters can’t escape. They move in its restrictive circle, unable to get away from each other or the desolate countryside that surrounds them. Though they might sing about “a life where we’re freer than the grass, bolder than the daybreak”, the reality is that “the Moors swallow up all the sound”.
A curtain, held high above the stage symbolises the grey desolation of the moors, shimmering and reflecting Fausto Brusamolino lighting, the gloomy mood emphasised by the eerie suggestions of Nate Edmondson’s score. And Eva Di Paolo’s beautifully designed costumes accentuate the natures of the characters and the restrictive time in which they lived.
Gaul directs her actors to accentuate the stiff, contained posture and clipped speech suggested by Silverman’s carefully contrived, economic script. There are no unnecessary words – and Gaul supports this with no superfluous action. Every movement and reaction is precise and meaningful, whether between the sisters – or Mastiff and the Moorhen as they meet on the moors. Gaul and her cast have reached inside the script and embodied the characters.
Romy Bartz plays the severe, manipulative Agatha with stiff and inflexible poise. This is a demanding role that requires varying levels of emotional control and persuasive cunning, which Bartz handles seamlessly.
Enya Daly plays her younger sister, Huldey. Dominated by Agatha, Huldey, like many of the Brontë characters, resorts to her diary, where she shares her humdrum life and unattainable dreams. Daly finds the girlish naivety and awkwardness of the character as well as her growing need for recognition and escape, which erupts in a final scene where Daly uses her diverse performance skills.
Emilie, the governess is played by Brielle Flynn, who, in the relatively short time span of the play, moves Emilie from initial enthusiasm, to confusion, disbelief, distrust and eventual submission. Silverman uses Emilie, as did the Brontës, to expose the flaws of the society of the time – and Flynn portrays this clearly.
Diana Popovska is the undervalued maid-of-all-seasons, wise to the to the wiles of both the sisters and alert to their every devious action. Popovska – and Gaul – make this grey-clad character almost gawky, creeping her across the stage in bent, ungainly, erratic movements that accentuate her ubiquitous scrutiny of the sisters, and facial expressions that belie her obsequious manner.
The usually ignored and mostly mistreated dog, Mastiff, is played with believable canine intuitiveness by Thomas Campbell. Swathed in knitted shawls, Campbell crouches on the stage, watchful, alert, missing nothing, including Agatha’s scorn and harshness. It is no wonder he retreats to the safety of the moors, where he finds love of a kind in a flighty, injured moorhen, played with gentle, chirpy inquisitiveness and caution by a very lithe and nimble Alex Francis.
The relationship between Mastiff and the Moorhen seems the reverse of those that play out in the cottage – but Mastiff has learnt well from the sisters!
Some may ask why Silverman chose to this period, these characters and the gothic nature of the plot to make her point. To others, especially women, the reason is abundantly clear. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.