Spoiler alert. The ending is predictable.
Wildfell Hall has a mysterious new resident in the form of one Helen Graham. Gathered round a basic kitchen table, Yorkshire locals chatter in disbelief about Helen, who has come to occupy the mansion of Wildfell Hall unmarried and alone with her son. This town feeds on gossip, characters listen with insatiable appetites, waiting to add their own anecdotes into the speculative mix. Susan Twist plays Mrs Markham with a stubborn ferocity, expressing particular concern for Helen’s seeming lack of respectability, as if her small deviance’s threaten to plunge the whole town into Dante’s Inferno.
The speculative sketch we have of Helen, is soon filled in by the woman herself. Played by Phoebe Pryce, who captures the spirit of the most interesting character on stage, her words are spoken with assuredness and authority, decibels above the other young female characters. The feminist credentials of Anne Brontë’s book rest upon this character forging a path for herself, different from what was expected of a Victorian woman. In 1848 this was monumental. A time in which a female protagonist having a “will of her own” is used as a simple pejorative.
We see Helen navigating between a dissatisfying marriage to Arthur and a sincerer love interest, in the form of Gilbert, who, more fittingly, is looking for “less of a pet, more a friend” in a potential suitor. Whilst Helen’s struggles here are borne out thoughtfully, it doesn’t escape its predictable ending. The staging of this play in that time period would have been a worthwhile pursuit, depicting the radical alternatives some women found themselves exploring. Today, with Elizabeth Newman’s direction, it feels like all we have is a retrospective appreciation for Anne Brontë, the least well-known sister of the famous Yorkshire trio.
Unhelpful to the text of the play is the sound design. In between set changes it is most peculiar. Loud eerie chords play, creating an ominous atmosphere, as if foretelling a major shakeup of the play in next scene. It doesn’t come. The music is dramatic leaps and bounds over the on stage events. The play continues, dragging along all of these characters to their inevitable conclusion.
The central problem of this production is the overwrought language, fueling the disconnect, making it difficult to appreciate the scandal of Helen’s arrival and the events that follow. Deborah McAndrew’s adaption of Anne Brontë’s 1848 novel maintains it a as relic of the past. Therefore, instead of being engaging, gripping us on an emotional level, unfortunately, it becomes a museum piece.