Brontë magic in Leeds

The West Yorkshire Playhouse is staging a season celebrating the Brontë sisters, just don't expect any bonnets says Nick Ahad.

Modern tale: Laura Elsworthyand Amelia Donkor in rehearsal for Villette

The West Yorkshire Playhouse was once considered the National Theatre of the North. It is a crown that was wrestled away by a theatre south of Leeds, the Sheffield Crucible, at the turn of the century.

In recent years the Playhouse has made an interesting decision to not chase its former title. Instead, under the leadership of James Brining, it has made significant changes within the organisation and in terms of the work being staged it has also looked closer to home than it arguably has in the past.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

That has meant looking for stories told by Yorkshire people in Yorkshire voices. Late last year the powers that be realised that there was a voice they had to add to the roster if they were serious about Yorkshire stories in Yorkshire voices: The Brontës.

“The Brontës, the West Yorkshire Playhouse, it’s a no-brainer,” says Mark Rosenblatt, associate director at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. “It’s also possibly a bit of a dangerous thing to tackle.”

He’s right. With 2016 marking the bicentenary of Charlotte’s birth, there are plenty already on the Brontë bandwagon. However, cows don’t come much more sacred than the Brontës in West Yorkshire.

On balance though it would probably be more dangerous not to tackle. So it is that a whole season of work based around the Brontës is heading to the stages of the Playhouse over the next month. However, be warned there won’t be a bonnet in sight.

“We had a moment where we could have done something quite traditional, but we chose not to follow that path,” says Rosenblatt. I think it’s really exciting we chose not to do that.”

What the Playhouse has chosen to do is present an embryonic musical called Wasted, which reimagines the literary sibling powerhouse of the Brontes as a nascent rock band, hold a series of related discussions, stage work that takes the Playhouse literally into the landscape of the Brontes and raise the curtain on a new version of Villette.

Charlotte Brontë’s third novel, it has been not merely adapted, but re-imagined for the stage by Linda Marshall-Griffiths.

Rosenblatt is the director of this brand new take on the story of Lucy Snowe who arrives in Villette, a fictionalised version of Brussels, destitute and alone. The narrative is famously internal and as the book charts her various relationships, there is only one voice which is heard. It is not the most obvious story to turn into a stage play.

Rosenblatt says: “Linda has stuck faithfully to the story that Charlotte Brontë told, but has found a really daring way to stage it. The novel is about a shy girl who has been afflicted by a family tragedy which means she’s alone in the world.

“It’s a hard story to stage because it’s about the girl in the corner watching what is going on around her and is alone in the world. The job of putting a shy, private girl on stage isn’t easy.”

The action, such as it is, has been transposed 120 years hence and in the stage version the heroine, Lucy, is looking for a cure to the pandemic which has wiped out much of the human race.

“It’s not Villette with zombies, there are no zombies. But it is quite a sci-fi telling of the story,” says Rosenblatt.

The actor charged with bringing this shy girl to life is Laura Elsworthy.

“It’s so exciting that this is coming to the Playhouse,” says the Hull native. “I’m a Yorkshire lass, but I wouldn’t really think of reading a Brontë novel because their writing feels almost sort of above me. Like it’s not for people like me.

“But the play has made me realise that it really is, it helped me to really enjoy the novel. When I got the audition I read the play and that made me really want to read the book. It also made me really want to get the role.

“If this production gets people reading the Brontes, especially people who think it’s not for them, that it’s all about the bonnets, then that’s great.”

It’s a big responsibility for the actor, but Elsworthy clearly feels she is taking on the role not just of Snowe, but of an advocate of the Brontës.

“Thankfully I’m used to playing lead parts now and strange characters and taking the weight of a production.

“To be honest telling a story like this doesn’t make me nervous, I’m more excited than anything.”

Rosenblatt agrees that audiences need sometimes to be reminded of the genius of the Brontës: “People sometimes think the sisters are somehow sacrosanct, but we want to push against that.

“They are amazing, but I think people can forget why they are amazing - it’s because their work is so relatable. We can tell these stories now and they still mean something to us. The reason they are great us because the work still holds up and still translates.”

For those concerned that the Brontë season is chok-full of the purely avant-garde - and there will be many - rest assured there will be pieces to please everyone.

“We do have Wuthering Heights by Northern Ballet for people who might consider themselves purists,” says Rosenblatt. “Jane Eyre had just been done really successfully by the National Theatre, not that that would necessarily stop us doing a production.

“However, our thinking was to do something that other people aren’t expecting and wouldn’t necessarily do. It might be something that people will be surprised at, but that’s the spirit of the Brontës.”