Where does creativity spring from? Are artists born or made? How could three lonely women living on the bleak Yorkshire moors more than 150 years ago have created some of literature’s most vibrant characters in plain Jane Eyre, the mad Mrs Rochester and the passionate, untamed Cathy and Heathcliff?
Polly Teale’s densely satisfying play eschews traditional bio-drama in favour of something theatrically wilder and emotionally pressing: mixing fact and fiction. Real people and characters from the novels collide in the whirligig of the imagination. “Is it true?” people will ask. The better question might be: is it emotionally true? It may be pure speculation, but it is not impossible that Charlotte burned Emily’s second novel after her sister’s death. We might today call that cultural vandalism; she may have called it love.
On the Watermill’s suffocatingly small stage, the Haworth parsonage parlour becomes a prison in Ruth Sutcliffe’s impressive, simple design, where it is the imagination, not a tiny, high window, that lets in the light. The sisters and their brother, Branwell, upon whom everybody’s hopes rest, play childhood games that have no limits, creating imaginary countries and warring armies. But as approaching womanhood constricts the sisters as surely as the corsets they must wear, so freedom and the opportunity to venture into the world beyond the moors destroys Branwell, whose only legacy is his famous portrait of his three grave sisters.
The more the sisters’ world telescopes down, the greater their imaginative reach, the richer their emotional hinterlands. Teale explores all this superbly in an evening that is as much sensed as it is fully known, and where the characters from the novels and the sisters themselves share the stage in a seamless melding of inner lives and outer reality.
Charlotte, painfully consumed by unrequited love, has Mrs Rochester reproachfully staring over her shoulder – as if the madwoman in the attic has already taken up residence in her psyche. The show is brilliant on sisterly affections and resentments, a relationship magnified by the smallness of their existence and the magnitude of their ambitions.
Some acquaintance with their books and the Brontë lives is necessary for full enjoyment, but even without it this would be a richly rewarding evening about the catalyst for creativity and the lure of immortality when you see death all around you. Nancy Meckler’s production has cultivated vivid performances and ensures that what might, in clumsier hands, seem overwrought instead appears perfectly and passionately pitched.