There was a moment during the evening performance of Anne Bronte’s classic ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre that the facade was finally lifted before my very eyes. Watching what can only be described as a less than enthralling adaptation of 19th century literature, it did not go unnoticed that the aisles were not packed to the rafters, and those that were in the aisles were those that naturally conform to the stereotypes of the average theatre goer for a production such as this.
If theatre is to broaden its appeal and to attract an audience from all walks of life then the Octagon Theatre & York Theatre Royals’ production of Bronte’s novel is not the way to go about it.
The story centres on the mysterious new tenant of Wildfell Hall and her salacious past. It was controversial in its day, but then again, most things were by today’s standards. Nonetheless, the scandalous nature of Bronte’s tale still has the capacity to shock, and its themes of feminism still have a relevancy – but only when done well.
Everything in this production screams ‘safe’. Adapted for the stage by Deborah McAndrew, she rarely deviates from the book, keeping an almost vice like grip on the faithful retelling of Bronte’s scurrilous story. The set is what you’d probably envisage a set designed with a Bronte novel in mind. Stone slab flooring, period pieces and lots of masonry.
Every little thing seems to mirror this. The lighting is a pastiche of pastel colours that all blend into one brownish hue. The period costumes are exactly the kind costumes you’d be accustomed to from this period in question. Dowdy, dreary and dull. “It’s a period piece, what did you expect?” I hear you all vociferating. Yet, when you add all these elements together it forms a potent mix, the affectation being merging the whole experience into one big mesh of insipidness.
The pace of the first act does this production no favours whatsoever. It spends far too long in trying to make sure the plot is set up for the second act, that it drags somewhat. The dynamic between the main characters of Mrs Graham and Gilbert Markham, the focus of much of the first act, does not help matters either, lacking the chemistry you’d expect from a Bronte damsel in distress and a brooding Heathcliff-esque hero.
Nevertheless, the nine strong cast do their best with what tools they have been given. In particular Phoebe Pryce, who is excellent as Mrs Graham. She is able to galvanise this piece through a fine array of emotive junctures within the play. There is genuine depth to her delivery and she finds an excellent foil in Marc Small as the antagonist Arthur Huntingdon, who also excels at times.
There are other worthy highlights. The use of the limited space that Bolton’s Octagon Theatre offers is exploited rather well, especially in the second half, depicting the events that brought the mysterious tenant to Wildfell Hall. There is also the ability to bring a lighter touch at times, the subtlety of comedy allowing the audience to indulge in the cosiness of McAndrew’s reworking. Be that as it may, it still not enough to save the production from the most damning of verdicts – that of mediocrity.
Of course I am sure both director, Elizabeth Newman and writer McAndrew, as well as those that are responsible for Bolton and York’s theatre programs will chastise me for focussing so heavily on the weaknesses of their offerings. Or for that matter critiquing it in a far wider context than they would like me to have. Or in Bolton’s defence excluding the number of their productions that have picked up numerous awards that are more than enthralling.
Notwithstanding that, it would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity to comment on the challenges in trying to entice more than just the average theatre goer. The reliance to produce these kind of shows for the theatre mainstream is gratifying an audience that is used to this kind of comfort zone pampering.
This is not to say that theatre should ditch the classics in favour of contemporary offerings. Recent productions such as Home, Young Vic and Birmingham Repertory Theatre co-production of Macbeth or the award winning production of Giselle from Akram Khan show that such productions can appeal to the wider audience and more so, create a buzz that encourages those that rarely venture to the land of theatre. Unfortunately the Tenant of Wildfell Wildfell Hall is not in that company.
Verdict: A faithful retelling of Anne Bronte’s classic that is safe, dependable and uninspiring.