Saturday, January 20, 2007

Review of Polly Teale's Brontë

I've had a chance to see a production of Polly Teale's renowned play and here are some thoughts:

The play seemed to be a sort of biopic, chronicling the lives of the Brontë siblings from childhood through adulthood. Unlike other versions in this genre, however, Polly Teale's take is an intermingling of fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. The play is as much a celebration of the sisters' lives as it is of Brontë criticism, for we get multiple interpretations fused together in this version.

All the actors performed well, delivering their lines with ease. There was also an amusing portrayal of Arthur Bell Nichols as a moony-eyed simpleton (minus the sideburns). With the exception of Anne's characterization, the others were more like their respective stereotypes: Emily was often reserved and rather contemplative, Charlotte seemed bossy and ambitious, Patrick cold and distant, Branwell reckless and weak. Anne, however, was quite bubbly and headstrong. She wasn't portrayed here as someone meek and shy as so many biographies have affirmed, including the biopic The Brontës of Haworth.

What I didn't like about the acting, however, was the over-emphasis on an Irish accent. As it happened to be American actors who performed all the Brontë sisters' roles, the Irish accent came off as a strained imitation, rather than something natural. It is even doubtful that that Brontës' accent, even if it had had an Irish ring to it, would have been as sharp as what it was shown to be here.

With regard to setting, it consisted of a large room with a fireplace on the right, which was near the door. On the left, hanging on the upper portion of the wall was a mirror that reflected the scenes taking place directly beneath. Hinged to the back of the room (facing the audience) were three chests. And finally, in the center of the room were two tables. The first large table was complemented by three chairs and a second lone, smaller table was accompanied by a single chair. There were books and papers strewn all over the tables and near the fireplace, signifying their importance in the Brontës' lives. Teale's using the drawing room, or writing room rather, as the center in which the play unfolds, is an indication of the most crucial aspect of the Brontës lives and works: they are, first and foremost, writers in every sense of the word, and thus, it is only fair that the drawing room remains as the setting for the whole length of the play.

The setting serves as a microcosm of the sisters' inner minds. During the play, the Brontës' characters seamlessly weave in and out of the stage at opportune moments. Just as events take place in the sisters' lives, their characters also have roles within the play, at the same time. For example, as Emily thinks of a story, Catherine Linton enters the stage, armed with a pillow and dressed in a white lacy nightdress. As Branwell cries out his grief over losing Mrs. Robinson, we see Bertha writhing on the floor, her mop of hair shielding her face, giving her an almost animal-like appearance. We, the audience, see the characters on stage as if they were elements of the sisters' own psyche.

Since I am quite familiar with Bronte biographies and criticism, I found many such interpretations of them in this play. However, what I found rather exceptional was the portrayal of the "other woman". In this play, Bertha and Catherine are played by the same actress. The former is scantily clad, with a marked corset revealing a voluptous frame, and a ruffled skirt over which lay remnants of a red, tattered apron. Bertha's hair was untidy and coarse, serving as a reminder of the "unmanageable" nature of her character. Futher, her movements are both ferocioulsy sexual and instinctively animal-like. On the other hand, Catherine Linton appears with her hair tied together in a neat braid, wearing a nightdress of virginal white, her voice soft and melancholy. By having the same actress portray both women--Bertha the madwoman, and an almost angelic, soulful, Catherine, Teale confirms the existance of a split personality for women, a fact prominent in nineteenth-century literature, famously postulated in Gilbert and Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic.

Another woman who takes center stage in the Brontës' lives, especiall Branwell's, is Mrs. Robinson, who ironically does not appear on stage, although she is acted out by both Bertha and Catherine. When Branwell refers to Mrs. Robinson, he stresses her passionate nature, her over-indulgence of feelings, the rawness of her emotions. Just as talks of her, we see Bertha alongside him, her motions highly eroticized. On the other hand, when Catherine Linton speaks of an unhappy marriage, being unable to relate to her husband but yearning to unite with her former love, this is not unlike Mrs. Robionson, who is also a married woman, and whose plight, as it becomes clear, rouses us just as Catherine's does. By aligning Mrs. Robinson with Bertha, who is aligned with Catherine, we see that all those three women are connected: they could be one and the same. Despite Mrs. Robionson's not appearing on the stage, we know that she is in fact there the whole time. Though invisible, she is never absent, a situation that resembles the power of the Brontës to transcend obscurity.

I admire Polly Teale for unearthing some controversial issues that deserve to be examined. By having a drunken, livid Branwell attack Charlotte in an abusive manner, Teale asks us to consider the ill-effects of domestic abuse which was a difficult issue in the Victorian era more than in our present time. Moreover, Branwell's manner of clutching Charlotte, groping parts of her body, strangling and flinging her violently as the other sisters watch in shock and powerlessness, is not far from sexual abuse, hinting the possibility that such an act is not uncommon in middle-class Victorian households such as the Brontës', despite the latter's unwillingness to acknowledge it. In this way, Teale also brings to our consciousness the possibility of incest, which could also explain the siblings' neuroses, especially Branwell's.

Teale's treatement of Charlotte also hinges on turning her into quite an unlikeable person. Fiercely ambitious, repeatedly Charlotte says that she wants to be famous, that she wants to be "forever known". This obsession makes her increasingly dissatisfied with Branwell's failure and his squandering the favors his father has bestowed on him. As Emily defends Branwell, this only makes Charlotte get into rows with her sister. The Charlotte in this play is short-tempered, prone to flights of rage. She can be quite bossy and jealous about her sisters' works, especially Emily's. The play suggests that after Emily's death, it was Charlotte who burned all her letters as well as Emily's second novel that was nearing completion, if not already complete by the time of her death.

Besides focusing on the Brontës' lives as writers, its innovations in stage setting and characterization, its ability to provoke the minds of the viewers and challenge commonly held notions of the Brontes and the Victorians, Polly Teale's Brontë is a play that intrigues and captivates, adding new twists that will appeal to any one--whether you are a Brontë aficionado, or don't have the faintest idea of them beyond English class.

*NB: The picture above is not from the production I saw. Though it is an image taken from another production, this scene closes the play.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Not Quite "The Most Enchanting Tale of All"

After weeks of anticipation, I finally had a chance to see Miss Potter. Although the movie started off quite well, I found myself rather disappointed as it progressed. Though a heartwarming tale, which was intended to be a biopic, the movie, I fear, might prove more of a success with young children rather than older viewers.

While Renee Zellweger gives a sparkling performance as the quirky Beatrix Potter, and Ewan McGregor as well the rest of the cast serve to complement her performance, the effect is not enough to erase blemishes in the script. For it is the script that is strongly lacking in depth and purpose. The film is half-way between fact and fiction: it is neither a complete biopic, nor a sophisticated work of art. When the film had a lot of potential to use this ambivalence to its advantage, the result was not quite satisfactory.

A few words will suffice to convey the gist of the plot: Beartix Potter writes a children's book amidst opposition from her family, falls in love with her publisher, becomes rich, eventually marries, and donates money for the purpose of conservation of historic land. A happy ending indeed. Now, tell me, why should someone go and see this particular film with an all too familiar script, if it is like just like any other average film?

The characters aren't shown to have a depth to them. Even Beartix barely escapes this classification. We don't know why exactly Mr. Warren loves Beatrix--is it for her work, or her beauty, or was he merely tired of being single? We don't see why Amelia Warren wishes to befriend Beatrix so much. Although we get a glimpse of Peter Rabbit and his friends popping out of the page, we don't get these creatures' perspectives on the matter.

The romance between Norman and Beatrix isn't explored well enough to be something deeper than a fling. Norman and Beatrix are shown to be "deliriously in love" with one another--but it seems to be more a fever of the flesh (to put it bluntly) than a mature, sustainable, affection for one another. Yes, they are both lovely people, if not at times awkward, but they seem too...nice, too perfect to be real.

I am also not too pleased about the film's handling of Beatrix's imagination. The technique of making her characters come alive at certain moments, sadly, seems more a mockery than a triumph. It is almost like accusing Beatrix of regression rather than affirmation of her identity as a serious author. Perhaps her mother is right in not taking her too seriously after all. Peter Rabbit and his friends are shown to be communicating with Beatrix only so one is left with wondering whose perspective the film is told from: Beatrix's or an omniscient narrator's. I do think the director could have explored Beatrix's relationship with her imagination in greater detail rather than affording spotty glimpses here and there. It is clear that her work makes Beatrix happy, but it isn't clear what about her work drives her unhappy and why she desires more than her work will allow.

Despite its flaws, however, the redeeming features are two fold: the depiction of the Lake District, and critique on the Victorian upper-classes. The Lake District begins to have a character of its own right from the first. The setting provides Beatrix with a freedom (if that is possible in her strict household) to explore the nature around her, and thus help her weave her stories. She intends to live in the Lake District as she finds it a source of inspiration for her writing. Towards the end of the movie, Beartix does establish her freedom as an independent woman by buying a house, and managing her land. Thus, the Lakes, becomes a synonym for freedom through Art.

The humor evoked by Beatrix's family's desperate attempt to maintain their "place" in society is striking. Beatrix's mother is a tiresome snob who does not see her daughter for the talented woman that she is. Also, her attempts at trying to bring suitors for Beatrix's marriage also merit a laugh. An unforgettable character is Beatrix' aged escort, an elderly spinster or widow, who accompanies Beatrix wherever the latter went. It is interesting that Wiggins (as I believe she is called) never says a word in the film, though her expressions are intended to convey the satire embedded into the film.

In conclusion, this isn't a bad film. It is just that I happen to have had more expectations for it. It is worth a watch if one is in the mood for something uncomplicated, fun, and light-hearted, but it does not deliver much more than that.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

AAA and some other (twisted) happenings

Today I endured the worst attack (yet) of AAA, which stands for Acute Applications Anxiety (yes, I believe I might have just invented the term, although this phenomenon tends to be a rather undefined endemic that sucks the marrow of postgrads to-be precisely around this time of the year). The primary symptoms include restlessness, extremes in appetite, spacing out, lack of desire for a social life, unhealthy levels of procrastination, body-aches, eye-aches, numbness, sleeplessness, and edginess.

The day started off with a slightly more than normal amount of procrastination. The agenda for today included making a long trip to pick up some documents that needed to be mailed, returning to town before the post office closed, gathering all my materials together, and having them express mailed. Remembering that the train leaves from the station at 1pm, I managed to scuttle out of my room with only half an hour to spare, which wasn't enough time to get to the station. When I reached the station, I remembered that the train runs on a special winter schedule so it would no longer come at that time. When I called my friend and found out where the next train comes,with five minutes to spare, I ran as fast as I could, despite the cruel wintry wind slashing my face. Panting, I managed to catch the train in time, ran a marathon again to get my documents and hopped on the next train back. By this time, it was already 4pm and the nearest post office closed at 4:30pm. This was certainly not enough time to gather all my documents. For one, I had a hard time printing documents, for if I noticed typos or mistakes in indentation, I had to print the documents over again. Not to mention, I had a hard time deciding what writing samples to send in the first place, so double the time was spent in editing papers, half of which would not get sent. After about two hours, as I was making a final checklist of gathered materials, I realized that the post office near-by closes in just half an hour. Overestimating my strength, I started walking for a mile, before my fatigue overpowered me and I succumed to the assistance of a kindly bus out of which I bounced off too fast, leaving me to walk yet more distance to get to the post office. The moment I surrendered those precious docuemnts, a sense of relief came with the aftermath.

Little did I know how things were to turn. When I reached home and just as I searched for my keys and pulled them out of my purse, I noticed that the key to my apartment was bent! Yes, a metallic key was bent in shape! Of all things to expect, who would fathom a bent key? It is one thing to lose a key and it is an entirely different matter if you have an otherwise strong-looking key that is mysteriously bent! Secretly, I think the energies resulting from the stress I underwent must have caused the key to react this way, but who knows? Anyways, just as I tried to slide the key into the keyhole of my apartment door, the key snapped! Broke into two pieces! So there I was locked out of my apartment for no fault of mine, for even though I have been locked out in the past, I could not be held responsible to not taking due precaution against a case of a bent key. I mean, who would even imagine such a thing happening, and today of all days, just when I hoped to relax a little?

My roommate later found me slumped in front of my apartment, like a stray cat, and it was only after she returned that I was able to finally get into my own room and try and destress after such an exhausting day.

Tomorrow I have to say farewell to my poor key (and its sad parts) and get new ones to replace them.

I do hope I don't have days like this very often.

Friday, January 05, 2007

First Post of the New Year

I hope this New Year has started off splendidly for everyone. I had spent the holidays with my parents at home and was transported to the World of Work only today. As result of my hiatus, my blogging activities had ceased for some time. However, I hope to revive them this year, with the wish of expanding upon my own writing. Realizing that I was never good at adhering to copious amounts of new year's resolutions, I resolved this year to make as small a list as is feasible. Striving to write more is one of the activities on my list, for as the past year drew to a close and inventories had to be made of the year's events, I confronted the painful fact that I failed at last year's NaNo. Occupied with more pressing issues, such as moving apartments and applying to graduate schools, I found little time to devote to writing. I hope things are more settled this year and that I will find not only time, but also enough sources of inspiration, to compose into scraps worthy of a read.

While this year has brought with it anxiety (which isn't out of the ordinary), there is also much to delight in. As for the former, I have yet to complete the application process in the next few weeks, after which will come another month or two of waiting to hear of the results. In any case, I am hoping things take a significant shift this fall: it'll either be going back to school or procuring another job.

And as for the delights, I have started reading the Narnia books!!! They are very engrossing and I hope to read more of them this year.

Also, a fellow Bronte-enthusiast, who shares my love of creativity inspired by the Brontes, has invited me to an event later this month which I am excited to attend.

And last but not least, Miss Potter will be released this month too, adding to what I hope would be an enchanting start to the New Year.