They appear awkwardly, all angles and monochrome; pallid faces, wide-eyed and cautious. There is an immediate comedy in their gloom, an abstract performance of heart-warming intent. After all, this is the Victorian times – an era of windy Yorkshire moors, of creaky old mansions and prolonged, drawn-out silences.
Just like the novels, We Are Brontë revels in an eerie sense of despair, romantic moments interspersed amid periods of isolation and separation. Every choreographed movement is carefully executed, every step cautiously trodden. Ed Rapley ensures that this performance is completely devoid of risk or gushing emotion, a concept that ties in with the sense of British reserve.
Angus Barr is the narrator of the pair, the more confident and extroverted character. Given his appearance to The Addams’ Family‘s butler Lurch, it’s hard to imagine Sarah Corbett to be any more introverted. And yet she accomplishes this with ease – a fragile, meek character that looks to crumble at any given moment. Lines of dialogue require pregnant pauses of stuttering and heavy breathing so she can work up the courage to utter anything at all.
The show itself is not about the Bronte sisters per se. There are elements of Wuthering Heights intrinsically woven into the tale, but ultimately this is a slack narrative of a woman that stays in an isolated mansion on those bleak moors. Of course, the abode is also inhabited by the Gothic, spindly Barr, all arms and legs and awkward glances through cracks in the wall.
As an homage to its time, We Are Brontë is distinctly pre-technology, which adds to its antiquated charm. Barr and Corbett extend even the simplest of tasks, such as the opening of the front door, into complicated skits with rudimentary props. The act of stretching such limited material as far as possible doesn’t diminish from the narrative, but rather maximises the comedic value at every point in the show.
Metaphors are plentiful throughout – the flutter of a book-bird; the pistons of her heart; the physical passage of time around the audience. For the most part, these metaphors translate to stage, Barr and Corbett consciously validating their choices by nervously explaining the relevance to the story. The imagery is istelf so simple enough that the act of demystifying it adds to the awkward, affable undertones. But the middle portion of the tale – a wedding that eschews the traditional opinion of romance – is a step too far. Barr and Corbett deftly recover this by admitting so themselves, strengthening their connection with the audience through mutual confused agreement. A somewhat awkward pause for a participatory Q&A ensues – conceptually valid but a risk that doesn’t pay off with this particular crowd.
The return to conclude We Are Brontë reiterates the lack of tenderness and strict adherence to formality stereotypically of the period. Despite being married, Barr and Corbett don’t seem anymore connected, preferring instead to settle within social convention and austere formality. This juxtaposition is where the true comedy can be found – a reminder as to why Britain clings to its traditions. We Are Brontë is a tale of woe that nevertheless conveys a low key message of hope.
Director: Ed Rapley
Producer: Publick Transport
Writer/ Performer: Sarah Corbett; Angus Barr
We Are Brontë played Omnibus until 20 May. For more information, please see the website.