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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  1. The Tenant of Wildfell Fall production shot
    Photograph: STC/Prudence Upton
  2. The Tenant of Wildfell Fall production shot
    Photograph: STC/Prudence Upton
  3. The Tenant of Wildfell Fall production shot
    Photograph: STC/Prudence Upton
  4. The Tenant of Wildfell Fall production shot
    Photograph: STC/Prudence Upton
  5. The Tenant of Wildfell Fall production shot
    Photograph: STC/Prudence Upton
  6. The Tenant of Wildfell Fall production shot
    Photograph: STC/Prudence Upton
  7. The Tenant of Wildfell Fall production shot
    Photograph: STC/Prudence Upton

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

STC goes where few period dramas dare to stray with this contemporary twist on Anne Bronte’s feminist classic

We’ve recently seen an uptick in the appeal of period dramas – or in the case of shows like Bridgerton, the lush escapist aesthetic of anachronistic period dramas, at least. From the sequel-fuelling upstairs-downstairs dynamics of Downton Abbey to the countless fires stoked by multiple generations of Pride and Prejudice, to the enduring appeal of soggy grey European landscapes as vehicles for the exchange of burning glances that are brimming with queer subtext. 

It’s about time that the feel of the period dramas that have been saturating screens was felt on the mainstage, and that is what we get with Sydney Theatre Company’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Adapted by the recent recipient of the Patrick White Playwrights Fellow, Emme Hoy, in her mainstage debut, this is a contemporary interpretation of a novel by the youngest and most unruly Brontë sister, Anne, which is considered the first English feminist novel. 

When strong-willed Helen Graham (Tuuli Narkle, supported by a cast at varying stages of their careers, all packing the strong stage presence you’d expect of a STC show) moves into the estate on the edge of the sleepy village of Lindenhope with her young son in tow, the townsfolk’s starved rumour mill fires up, and eventually it comes to light that the Widow Graham is no widow at all – she has left her husband, and that simply is not done. When The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was first published in 1848, it so shocked English society with its frank depiction of an abusive relationship that Brontë’s equally famous sister (Jane Eyre’s Charlotte Brontë) sought to prevent its republication.

When she began adapting Anne Brontë’s second and final novel, Emme Hoy was the same age, 28, as Brontë when she wrote the story. Under the direction of Jessica Arthur, Hoy uses the text as a springboard to explore a darkly relevant issue, embedded into a story with all the frills, British-isms and will-they-won't-they camp drama we’ve come to love and expect or period pieces. To see an unambiguous depiction of the more innocuous seeming perils of gender dynamics as well as the pitfalls domestic abuse portrayed in this context feels almost as provocative today as it did when the novel debuted almost two centuries ago. 

Is she simply a reclusive artist, or a single mother furiously producing paintings to make ends meet? As the story progresses, the reasons for Helen’s standoffishness, her disdain for alcohol and her fierce protectiveness over her child become clear. The audience sees art imitates polite society’s worst, as we watch how an initially charming man can win a naive young woman’s affections, only to betray her in all the worst ways and influence their impressionable child against her. We also see how many people take notice and show concern, while never being bold enough to make a meaningful intervention – and we question whose place it is to make such an intervention, and what choices a woman who is being held hostage in plain sight really has. As everyone desperately attempts to play the role they have been prescribed, no one in this society seems to be in a position to be their best selves or live their best lives – unless, it would seem, if true love gets a chance. 

While there are some deeply satisfying elements to this new adaptation, there are inconsistencies that soften the impact of what has the potential to be a truly cutting edge work of feminist theatre. For example, the accent work is as shaky as the commitment to breaking the fourth wall, and if you don’t pay close enough attention it’s also easy to get confused about who is who as most of the actors play multiple roles across two different timelines. 

The action is slow to build and the almost three-hour runtime (including interval) feels excessively drawn out at times. The set, a rose vine covered balcony standing in for the titular Wildfell Hall designed by Elizabeth Gadsby (STC’s Julius Caesar) remains largely static for the most part of the first half. However towards the end of act one, as tensions build and the transitions between Helen’s past and present grow more frenetic and blended, the set begins to rotate, and the action moves between the interior of Wildfell Hall and the balcony with an almost cinematic fluidity, a thrilling crescendo of drama that leaves the audience hungry to know what act two has in store. As the emotional intensity simmers, Eliza Scott, who plays the dual roles of Mary Millward and Milicent Hattersley in their STC debut, takes up position at a piano to provide a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack with synth-y electronic vocalisations. It enhances the hallucinatory, dreamlike (or nightmare-like) energy of some of the most tense scenes. 

There’s the feeling that the script could have been spectacular if it was more ruthlessly edited, and the more experimental elements and familiar tropes more impactful if only the team had picked less of them and committed to them more bravely. Regardless, this is a rewarding show for anyone ready to take their penchant for period drama off the screen.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is on at the Roslyn Packer Theatre in Walsh Bay until July 16. 

Want more? Check out the best shows to see in Sydney this month.

Alannah Maher
Written by
Alannah Maher


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