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Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall at Roslyn Packer Theatre

Reviewed by: Priscilla Issa

Anne Bronte’s writing has historically distinguished her from her sisters, Charlotte and Emily. She became known as the “other Bronte” and yet, her writing, despite its unpalatableness to 19th Century readers, has stood the test of time.

Up-and-coming Australian playwright, Emme Hoy’s, adaptation of Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, stays true to the original text by didactically addressing a range of weighty topics that still have chilling modern resonance. Hoy has not shied away from addressing the issues of domestic violence, emotional abuse, alcoholism and adultery. But, interestingly, she has not pushed the narrative so far that the themes become labored. Rather, with the support of the director, Jessica Arthur, the play examines these age-long issues alongside new and equally poignant themes.

In particular, the traditional notions that the home should be a place of serenity and that the Gothic ‘outside’ is a place of nightmares, have been cleverly subverted.

Also, while the issue of women’s legal control over their lives, children and property is not a new topic of discussion, the adaptation asserts that victims of domestic abuse need not be considered ‘victims’ in their own narrative but agents of change and of hope. The protagonist, Helen Graham, is a woman who has endured what many others in abusive relationships have endured - harassment, belittling, and mockery. Yet, by using her critical faculties, and her voice through art and journaling, she escapes the horrors of her tumultuous relationship. Arthur's direction allows actor, Tuuli Narkle, to portray Helen's intelligence and strength in the face of adversity. The Gothic concept of “inheritance” was another fascinating aspect of the production. As mentioned in the program notes, rather than the literal sense of inheritance, Hoy and Arthur use alternative direct addresses and flashbacks to represent the inheritance of cyclical patterns of trauma and family violence.

Helen arrives in the neighbourhood with her son, sparking rumours about her reputation. She is mysterious; she is fiercely protective of her boy, Arthur Graham; and she staunchly holds onto what pride she has left after witnessing multiple accounts of her husband’s debauchery. It is not long before Gilbert Markham, a local farmer, falls in love with her. Initially, Gilbert is troubled by her relationship with her landlord who the audience later discovers is, in fact, her brother. Helen hands Gilbert her diary which exposes her suffering at the hands of Arthur Huntington. The novel’s two storylines - one where Gilbert is besotted with Helen and the other where she escapes her tormentor - run simultaneously. It is at the denouement that Gilbert looks for ways to help her out of her situation and it is through the pain that the love between them flourishes. Remy Hii’s portrayal of Gilbert was exceptional. He was able to convey the evolution from cocky and brash at the start to sympathetic and affectionate by the end.

Commendations to Elizabeth Gadsby on a simple, yet clever, set design. A house, which doubles as Helen Graham’s former home and her refuge, Wildfell Hall, sits atop a turntable stage. As the house rotates, the two stories unfold. The audience does not feel jarred by the flashes into past and back to present because the rotation blocking is seamless.

Trent Suidgeest’s lighting design appropriately captures the changing moods in the various personal dynamics. The play begins light and sunny when Helen first meets Arthur Huntington, symbolising the love she once had for him. The middle is brooding and dim, highlighting the strained personal relationship that soon followed. In particular, the black silhouette of the house against the dim orange sunset lighting added to the sense of foreboding. The return to sunny weather at the conclusion of the play was a welcome reprieve and could not have been better captured than by a kiss between Helen and her new lover, Gilbert.

It was a clever direction that the rest of the cast double as characters who share similarities in the alternate story. Anthony Taufa is gentle and understanding as the landlord, Lord Lowborough. He portrays this same softness as the sincere Frederick Lawrence, whose wife Annabelle (Nikita Waldron) obnoxiously uses him for her own personal gain. Tara Morice, who plays Helen’s aunt, played the dutiful 19th Century female well. In a similar vain, she portrayed Mrs Markham as obedient and steadfast to traditional conceptions of femininity.

Overall, this was an extraordinary recreation of the classic novel. Congratulations to all. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is playing at Roslyn Packer Theatre until the 16th July. Do not miss it!

Image Credit: Prudence Upton


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