Roslyn Packer Theatre, June 25


Tuuli Narkle. Photos: Prudence Upton.

It was epically ambitious. Not only has playwright Emme Hoy condensed Anne Bronte’s 500-page novel down to less than three hours of drama, she had to resolve how to adapt Bronte’s quirky structure, whereby the book’s middle half is an elongated flashback in the form of a journal, with few of the countless characters overlapping between the “present” and this past.

Sometimes using a narrator, Hoy has done this by continually alternating scenes between the two realities (which lets the audience in on some secrets that the book holds back). Simultaneously she’s bent Bronte’s tone and intentions to her will, making the first half largely a comedy of manners, and then thickening the gothic gloom in the second half.

The story tells of Helen Huntingdon, who, in a daring move for a mid-19th century woman, flees a wretchedly dysfunctional marriage to save herself and her young son from a drunken, philandering, coarse and callous husband. Her brother establishes her as a tenant in Wildfell Hall under the assumed name of Helen Graham, where she becomes the subject of endless gossip among the locals, while snaring the heart of one of them, Gilbert Markham.

Steve Rodgers and Eliza Scott. Photos: Prudence Upton.

Hoy does not have to amplify Bronte’s feisty, assertive feminist voice, and she and director Jessica Arthur were, like Bronte, in their late 20s when crafting this Sydney Theatre Company production, which champions Helen’s strong-willed independence not just amid the roguish, brutish males, but the petty, asinine females, too.

Ultimately, however, Hoy’s adaptation works better than Arthur’s production. Too often there’s an awkwardness and a stiltedness to the performances, especially in the first half, when Hoy takes the book’s comedic dimension closer to Jane Austen than Bronte. This requires a much lighter touch from the actors and director not to seem amateurish on occasion. It all improves markedly in the second half when the mood is more gothic, the story edgier and the drama heightened.

Tuuli Narkle ensures Helen feels centred: morally robust, but without having had all her good humour upended in her husband’s wine glass. She faces a world grimly set against her with vivacity and vulnerability as well as resolve. Ben O’Toole makes her husband, the reprehensible Arthur, seem caricatured at first, offering no evidence of what could possibly have attracted Helen. He becomes more convincing the more Arthur sinks into evil – including burning his wife’s artworks and insisting his young son scoffs brandy. Danielle Catanzariti is a rather dizzy but entertaining version of that son, while Remy Hill often makes the serious-minded (if comically volatile) Gilbert too glib.

Tuuli Narkle and Danielle Catanzariti. Photos: Prudence Upton.

Steve Rodgers, Tara Morice, Anthony Taufa, Nikita Waldron and Eliza Scott play different characters in the two time-zones, with Rodgers saving the floundering early scenes thanks to his amusing vicar, who thoughtfully reassures Mary, his eldest, that “there are many cheerful spinsters with many friends and cats”. Eliza Scott particularly impresses not just as both Mary and Milicent Hattersley, but as a live musician and vocalist partially realising Clemence Williams’ exceptional score, which emphasises the story’s gothic shadows, and sometimes takes up the emotional slack by being more genuinely affecting than the performances.

Elizabeth Gadsby’s elaborate set employs a revolve, which helps Jessica Arthur spin between past and present, although it almost makes one giddy, so extensively is it used. If the production as a whole can become more attuned to the emotional veracity of the music, then, as Milicent says to Helen, we could say that everyone is doing the best they can.

Until July 16.