Of the three Brontë sisters, Anne was reputedly the most defiant and unruly. When her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was published in 1848, it was so scandalous that elder sister, Charlotte, banned it from republication for several years after Anne’s death. Of course, scandal in the mid-1800s had a much lower barrier to entry than it does today. What makes this story unusual and frankly, demoralising, is how cogently relevant much of its subject matter still is.
The Sydney Theatre Company’s theatrical adaptation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is harrowing, intriguing, sometimes comical, and unfortunately, sometimes confusing. Playwright, Emme Hoy, certainly bit off a mouthful attempting to reinterpret Brontë’s complex, gothic novel, originally written as a collection of letters and journal entries, for the stage.
For the most part, it is a stunning production thanks to the outstanding performances and clever design elements. What is problematic is the structure, length and density. The novel tells the narrative in three parts: present, past, then back to the present. Hoy’s script switches from present to past frequently. With many of the cast playing duel roles (different characters in each time frame) it’s easy for a viewer to lose the thread, especially if you are not already familiar with the story.
In brief, a widow arrives in a small English town with her young son. She becomes the new tenant of the long-vacant Wildfell Hall and immediately evokes suspicion and scorn. One, because she earns a living as an artist – unheard of in these misogynistic times, and two, because her fierce reticence is interpreted as snobbery. It is only when we go into her back story that we realise why she is so stand-offish, and why she rejects the affections of a handsome, if somewhat chauvinistic, suitor.
There are in fact several relationships portrayed in the story, each is dysfunctional and variously involves violence, abuse, alcoholism, infidelity. The violence and misogyny is very confronting. Thankfully, there are moments of levity to give you a breather. A rotating stage helps indicate the time changes and is also used to build extraordinary tension during moments when is keeps spinning relentlessly.
This play definitely comes with trigger warnings and, at three hours long, may be an ordeal for some. It is, however, a rare theatrical experience worthy of a look for those up for the challenge.