Brontë-fever has been raging across the UK for over 150 years, and with new play We Are Three Sisters coming hot on the heels of film versions of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, we show little sign of wanting to be cured.
Blake Morrison's take on the famous siblings' story, which finishes its country-wide tour this month, is inspired by Chekhov’s play, Three Sisters - which in turn is said to be inspired by the Brontës. Instead of three Russian women and their brother, isolated in the provinces and dreaming of Moscow, our sisters reside in a windswept Haworth parsonage and imagine the glories of London.
The play opens with the lonesome whistling gales of the moors, seeming to thread through the bare set which marks out the Brontes’ home with two chimneys and an easel bearing the famous portrait of the family.
Charlotte (Catherine Kinsella), Anne (Rebecca Hutchinson) and Emily (Sophia Di Martino) outwardly live a quiet, dutiful life, surrounded by gravestones and plagued by illness (Anne rather ominously observing "I've not had a cough in weeks"). Yet, spirited and witty, they take consolation in each other and their reading - while Anne loudly covets useful “work” - and all three avidly pursue their secret night-time scribblings. Anne and Emily are already published, under masculine pseudonyms, while Charlotte is pursuing publication in London. Fame is a breath away, yet for now they are stranded on the moors and "know nothing of life" according to their dissolute brother Branwell, played by Gareth Cassidy.
The outside world is brought in by their father the parson - and by the patriarchal triumphirate of the new “lovesick” curate, the self-aggrandising, Latin-spouting teacher, and the drunken, yet lonely doctor, who sets his cap at Anne. But their lives are shaken further by the intrusion of Branwell's older, married mistress Lydia Robinson, whose verve, sexuality and ultimate cruelty are flagged up by a swagged lime-green dress.
Poverty, politics, illness and death are never far away but the morbidity is leavened by the darkest humour (Emily in particular is a proto-Goth, complaining that the house is “like living inside a coffin”). The pace drags somewhat towards the end, yet while the girls’ future seems bleak, one eye is kept on the modern audience: “in the end we will be remembered”, Charlotte promises.
We Are Three Sisters continues at the Rose Theatre in Richmond, London until 19th November before continuing to York Theatre Royal from 22nd-26th November