Bold Bronte sister adaption turns page on domestic violence


Roslyn Packer Theatre, June 25

It was epically ambitious. Not only has playwright Emme Hoy condensed Anne Bronte’s 500-page novel down to less than three hours of drama, she had to resolve how to dramatise Bronte’s quirky structure, whereby the book’s middle half is an elongated flashback in the form of a journal, with few of the countless characters overlapping between the “present” and this past.

Tuuli Narkle plays Helen, who faces a grim world with veracity and vulnerability as well as resolve.Credit:Prudence Upton

Sometimes using a narrator, Hoy has done this by continually alternating scenes between the two realities (which lets the audience in on some secrets that the book holds back). Simultaneously she’s bent Bronte’s tone and intentions to her will, making the first half largely a comedy of manners, and then thickening the gothic gloom in the second half.

The story tells of Helen Huntingdon, who, in a daring move for a mid-19th century woman, flees a wretchedly dysfunctional marriage to save herself and her young son from a drunken, philandering, coarse and callous husband. Her brother establishes her as a tenant in Wildfell Hall under the assumed name of Helen Graham, where she becomes the subject of endless gossip among the locals, while snaring the heart of one of them, Gilbert Markham.

Hoy does not have to amplify Bronte’s feisty, assertive feminist voice, and she and director Jessica Arthur were, like Bronte, in their late 20s when crafting this Sydney Theatre Company production, which champions Helen’s strong-willed independence not just amid the roguish, brutish males, but the petty, asinine females, too.

Tenant of Wildfell Hall is played as a comedy of manners before taking a bleaker turn.

Tenant of Wildfell Hall is played as a comedy of manners before taking a bleaker turn.
Credit:Prudence Upton

Ultimately, however, Hoy’s adaptation works better than Arthur’s production. Too often there’s an awkwardness and a stiltedness to the performances, especially in the first half, when Hoy takes the book’s comedic dimension closer to Jane Austen than Bronte. This requires a much lighter touch from the actors and director not to seem amateurish on occasion. It all improves markedly in the second half when the mood is more gothic, the story edgier and the drama heightened.

Tuuli Narkle ensures Helen feels centred: morally robust, but without having had all her good humour upended in her husband’s wine glass. She faces a world grimly set against her with vivacity and vulnerability as well as resolve.

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