Sunday 21 September 2014

Theatre Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall at The Rondo Theatre, Bath

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the Brontë novel you discover, rather than it being force-fed to you at school. Written by the lesser known sister Anne, it's tonally distinctive, taking a more brutal view of humanity than the romanticised stories of Charlotte and Emily.

At the time of publication in 1848 (under the name Acton Bell), the actions of its heroine in leaving her abusive and alcoholic husband outraged Victorian society, but also led to phenomenal success on both sides of the Atlantic. Co-inciding with the first women's rights convention taking place in Seneca Falls, New York, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is widely considered to be the first fully sustained feminist novel.

This new stage production of the book is a result of collaboration between Butterfly Psyche and Livewire Theatre, part of their Brontë Season, alongside Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.  All of these are pared back adaptations and in Tenant, directed by Shane Morgan, the story is told by just two actors, Madelaine Ryan and Tom Turner.

Helen Graham, a mysterious young widow, has taken up residence at the dilapidated Wildfell Hall. She quickly becomes the subject of village gossip but Gilbert Markham, a local young farmer, refuses to believe the worst. As he admires the canvases she paints to keep herself and her young son, their friendship develops. Desperate to explain her situation, Helen gives him her diaries and Gilbert reads of her marriage to Arthur Huntingdon and the abuse which lead her to leave him. Agonised by her situation, he also realises how far apart they are in terms of class. Then, as Helen receives news of her husband's ill-health, it seems she must leave Wildfell Hall and return to Arthur's side.

That the actors are not dressed in Victorian costume reinforces the contemporary relevance of the issues of alcoholism and domestic abuse raised by this story; having said this, Alison Farina's adaptation finds an unexpectedly comic lightness of touch. Inhabiting multiple characters, but primarily those of Helen and Gilbert, Ryan and Turner are an appealingly well-matched duo. There's believable chemistry between them; when roguish Huntingdon proposes to naive young Helen, she leaps into his arms and the couple fend off the admonitions of her aunt. It's a captivating moment and the physicality shown in this instant could have been further extended in the rest of the play.

There are few props, just a couple of suitcases and some empty canvases, and a musical score by Wasuremono of Bradford-on-Avon. Pared back it may be, but it's an entertaining and entirely charming production, whether or not you already know the story.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is part of the Brontë Season at the Rondo, Bath until 27th September 2014. 
Pictures courtesy of Butterfly Psyche Theatre.


  1. This is a beautifully written play and seeing it provided an entertaining evening out - If it encourages people to read the book it will also have a worthy impact.

    However, readers of Bronte should be warned beforehand it is a sanitised version of the book, in this play The Tenant of Wildfield Hall has been subject to an 'Austin style' make over.

    The nuances of the book, which is narrated by Gilbert through letters, have been lost in translation. The play presents Gilbert is an affable hero, rather than the obstinate, socially ambitious and violent character that is gradually revealed in his own words when reading the book. Bronte’s Helen remains blind to new demons as they present themselves, however this adaptation is an enjoyable story of happy ever after. I was only truly saddened to see the one worldly-wise character from the book, the aunt, transformed into a subject of comedy.

    Despite this, the adaptation does provide good, light entertainment and it’s been very cleverly written for two actors (who were amazingly talented in the performance at the Rondo Theatre, Bath) to perform in just 1hour 10minutes.

    1. I agree many nuances have been lost, but think this is inevitable when a book as complex as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is stripped back to only two actors and a limited time-frame. I didn't see it as 'Austen-style' though and felt the Aunt was still worldly-wise as well as comedic.
      This adaptation is much lighter and funnier than the original novel. It sounds like you enjoyed it despite the difference in tone! It presents an interesting and, as you say, entertaining aspect to a story which deserves to be much more widely known.


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