Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is, by all accounts, a very good novel. A classic. It was deeply shocking to readers of the time (1848) with its no-holds-barred depiction of alcoholism and adultery and – even more scandalous – of a woman defying the legal enslavement that was 19th century marriage. This production appears to be a straightforward adaptation (by Deborah McAndrew), but in compressing a 400-odd page novel into just under two-and-a-half hours, it has become very plot-driven, and any tension, complexity and subtlety seem to have been squeezed out. The result is, sadly, a fairly dreary affair.
The play is performed in the round and set in a Yorkshire farming community (evoked by slabs of Yorkshire stone) whose residents are intrigued by the arrival at the nearby Wildfell Hall of a ‘widow’ (‘Mrs Graham’ aka Helen Huntingdon) and her young son. She becomes both an object of much gossip and the love interest of a local boy, Gilbert Markham (cue many – many – long, long, lingering looks …) As the story unfolds, Helen’s past (particularly her catastrophic marriage) is gradually revealed through a flashback device depicting scenes from a personal journal which she has entrusted to Gilbert. In these scenes, we meet her amoral macho husband (Arthur) revelling in alcohol and adulterous sex, and witness Helen’s moral and emotional struggle to be a good wife and mother – until she can stand it no longer and takes the then illegal and morally outrageous step of leaving. Hiding out at Wildfell Hall, she endures the unjust gossip, resists Gilbert’s advances and finally, as a dutiful wife, returns to nurse her husband as his body finally succumbs to the ravages of all his excesses. Could there at last be a future for the farm boy and the saintly Helen?
To be sure, the cast does as well as it can. Helen (Phoebe Pryce) deports herself with an appropriate blend of moral rectitude and passion; Gilbert (Michael Peavoy) is suitably moody and smouldering; Arthur (Marc Small) is properly vile; and, apart from Gilbert’s mother and Rachel, the housekeeper (played with admirable subtlety by Susan Twist), all the other women adequately display stereotypical varieties of bitchiness, jealousy and spite (no female solidarity in evidence here). Humour is provided by a Father-Ted-like Reverend (Colin Connor) with a penchant for home brew. So far, so two-dimensional. Each character feels like a plot device. And once the general drift of the plot becomes apparent, it all feels rather predictable.
The main question raised for me by this production is … ‘why now?’ Shocking as the story may have been in the 1850s, it really isn’t clear what this adaptation has to offer in 2017, aside from prompting us to smile smugly at the deep sexism of the 19th century and to bask in our own enlightenment. Further, in playing it ‘straight’ – just doing a literal re-telling of the story, complete with naturalistic set and staging – is the director (Elizabeth Newman) not missing an opportunity at least to add some theatrical interest to the whole thing? Without this, it ends up being just another period drama, leaving the audience with little to remember or reflect upon – apart, perhaps, from the delightful appearances of a very well-trained border collie.