Saturday 5 November 2011 was a particularly memorable Bonfire Night for me, not because the neighbours had a firework display of Disney-like proportions (instead of the usual damp squib of a selection from ASDA) but because I trundled off to the delightful Lawrence Batley theatre in Huddersfield to see Blake Morrison’s play ‘We Are Three Sisters.’
I am a fan of both Chekhov and the Brontës so I was intrigued to discover how Morrison had used the Russian playwright’s ‘Three Sisters’ as a template for his own interpretation of the ‘Brontë Myth’. Indeed, there are many parallels between Chekhov’s masterpiece and the Brontës’ upbringing. Chekhov’s play revolves around three sisters living in a remote, rural town who yearn for change. In ‘We Are Three Sisters,’ Charlotte, Emily and Anne spend their days in Haworth, longing to travel to London. Like Masha, Olga and Irina, the Brontë sisters also have a roguish brother with addiction problems and a tendency to fall for unsuitable women. Both families have a loyal old maid and are visited by various local figures eager to woo the women.
However, as the renowned Brontë biographer, Juliet Barker, wrote in her blog, the play is “far more Brontë than Chekhov.” Although there were some clever references to Chekhov’s script, for example, the Brontës cry “London! London! London!” instead of the Prosorovs’ triadic structure; “Moscow! Moscow! Moscow!”, most of the dialogue was a subtle fusion of the Brontës own words taken from their letters, diaries, poems and novels delivered in earthy Yorkshire accents. Neither did Morrison shatter the traditional perception of the Brontës’ personalities. Charlotte was portrayed as strong and ambitious, Emily was passionate and ethereal, Anne was gentle but socially aware and Branwell was the much-loved, talented yet tormented brother. All four of the actors put in solid, if a little earnest, performances. Duggie Brown was a wonderfully laconic Patrick Brontë and comic relief was provided in the doughty form of ‘Tabby.’
Jessica Worrall’s set design was also deeply evocative and in many ways, was enhanced by the intimate setting of the Lawrence Batley Theatre. The dimly lit stage filled with heavy furniture induced a sense of cosiness verging on claustrophobia. To convey how doom, death and wild nature were constant presences in the family’s life, gravestones framed the stage and the soundtrack comprised the unrelenting howling of the wind and Emily’s hacking cough.
All in all, ‘We Are Three Sisters’ was not as “nuts” as Morrison first feared it would be. There was a certain reliance on poetic licence concerning some biographical events and Russian and English Literature purists may have found the melding of the two plays a stretch too far for the imagination. However, for me, Chekhov’s zesty drama breathed new life into the familiar story of Acton, Ellis and Currer Bell and proved that when it comes to innovative dramatic productions, three really is the magic number.
By Sarah Butler (Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery)