POETRY OF THE BRONTES: Stratford Upon Avon Festival

Poetry Of the Brontës
Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival
Review by John Alcock: 07.08.05

Acting talents that match the literary ones of the three authors

I ask myself, O why has heaven / Denied the precious gift to me, / The glorious gift to many given / To speak their thoughts in poetry?’ So writes Emily Brontë in Alone I sat’, one of the many poems of her own and her talented family’s that disprove this sentiment. Stratford Poetry Festival’s programme on August 7 did much to endorse the fact that poetry, as well as the better-known novels, was well within the capability of the Brontë sisters, and even their harum-scarum brother Branwell penned some creditable lines.

The programme, devised and introduced by Paul Edmondson, Assistant Director of the Festival, featured a trio whose acting talents matched the literary ones of the three authors: Janet Suzman (Charlotte), Harriet Walters (Emily) and Aislin McGuckin (Anne), deputising for Amanda Root, absent owing to filming commitments. In addition to speaking the words of their own alter egos’, the three read Branwell’s poems and excerpts from Mrs Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë. The Gaskell readings set the scene and gave a picture of the young sisters, physically bound by the confines of the Haworth parsonage yet allowing their vivid imaginations to roam free.

Of the three (or four!), Emily is generally recognised as the major poet and this performance tended to reinforce that her poems struck the ear with a range of images and rhythms not found in the others. Charlotte and Anne tended to be more cautious and their imagery more predictable though the latter came across as the more out-going and a poem like Memory’ came as a welcome antidote to the darker broodings of many of the others. Branwell’s poem, also title Memory’, is a much slighter work, written after he himself has said the fruits of one hours (sic) most agonising labour.’

The performance also contained excerpts from the Brontë novels that, while appropriate in context and illuminating in mood, pointed up the problem with the programme as a whole: despite the undoubted ability of the performers, the poetry alone of the writers en famille’ could not sustain a whole evening and a rather long one at that (it was disappointing to see how many empty seats there were after the interval). The cutting and re-ordering of some of Part ll indicated, perhaps, the recognition of this and an attempt to remedy it. Even so, the three performers provided a fascinating insight into the sisters’ lives: Janet Suzman as a staunch anchor; Harriet Walter reinforcing her rank as a foremost speaker of poetry; Aislin McGuckin relaxing into her role and giving a new sparkle to the second half.

Towards the end, Charlotte’s poem On the Death of Emily Jane Brontë’ brought the evening’s most moving moment, while Anne’s The Captive Dove’ best summed up the lives of the sisters who were confined by the slender wires’ of the captive state’ which influenced so much of their lives, yet, happily, giving space for their literary minds to wander free’.

2005-08-15 20:33:52

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