The QT

Saturday 18 May 2024

The Brontës as not taught in schools

A new and “irreverent” play about the literary sisters has premiered in London and is coming our way. David Whetstone reports
L-R Rhiannon Clements as Anne, Gemma Whelan as Charlotte, Adele James as Emily in Underdog – The Other Other Bronte

A new play called Underdog: The Other Other Brontë has just opened at the National Theatre but there’s good reason in the North East for looking out for the reviews when they start appearing in the coming days (press night in London is April 4).

It’s a co-production between the National Theatre and Northern Stage and is due for a run at the Newcastle venue in the summer.

Northern Stage artistic director Natalie Ibu has been in London directing the show while assisting as part of the directorial team has been Natasha Haws, another director from the North East (making her dad, Ray Spencer of Customs House fame, very proud).

The play is billed as “an irreverent retelling of the lives and legend of English literature’s famed sisters, the Brontës”.

Brontë purists may take a sharp intake of breath seeing their heroines’ story irreverently told — but literary levity is having a moment in the theatre, it seems.

Natalie Ibu in rehearsals with the cast at the National Theatre Credit: Isha Shah

Auditions have recently taken place in Newcastle for Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) which has fun with Jane Austen’s most famous novel and is hitting the road again later this year in a new co-production with Newcastle Theatre Royal.

On its first tour, it, too, was performed at Northern Stage and went down a storm, as it did later at the Theatre Royal with a different cast.

If Sarah Gordon’s Underdog: The Other Other Brontë enjoys the success of Isobel McArthur’s Austen play, everyone will very happy and the search will begin for the next literary classic by a woman to get the 21st Century comic revamp (George Eliot’s Middlemarch would seem ripe for the plucking).

The Gordon play first became public knowledge when it won the 2020 Nick Darke Award, funded by Falmouth University and established in memory of the Cornish playwright who died in 2005.

At the online award ceremony, Jeremy Howe, editor of The Archers and one of the judges, characterised the play as “the Brontës meets Fleabag” and called it “scabrous, rude, crude, in your face and enormous fun”.

Sarah Gordon, a graduate of the National Film and Television School, enjoyed success with her first play, The Edit, which toured in 2019 and garnered enthusiastic reviews.

Funny, whip smart and full of the complexity of sisterhood, Sarah’s writing is everything you want from a script.

Natalie Ibu, director

As I understand it, the “other other” Brontë is Anne, the youngest of the talented but ill-fated siblings and the author of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

While most people can name Charlotte, author of Jane Eyre and the oldest and longest-lived of the sisters (she was 38 when she died in 1855), who was the other one, the one who wrote Wuthering Heights?

That was reclusive Emily who died in 1848, aged just 30, leaving one famous and fabulously emotional novel for posterity to thrill to.

Natasha Haws (staff director) and Kwaku Mills in rehearsals at the National Theatre. Credit: Isha Shah

Anne, who died the following year aged 29, is the one people struggle with, supposedly.

According to Northern Stage, Underdog: The Other Other Brontë is “not a story about well-behaved women.

“This is a story about the power of words. It’s about sisters and sisterhood, love and jealousy, support and competition.”

The National Theatre alludes to “the sibling dynamics that shaped the Brontës’ uneven rise to fame”.

Natalie Ibu in rehearsals for Underdog – The Other Other Brontë at the National Theatre. Credit: Isha Shah

Taking a step away from the play, which I’ve neither seen nor read, that was — at least in the case of the younger sisters — a posthumous fame and something Emily, at least, surely would not have welcomed.

But the play is the play and may tell us something different.

Natalie Ibu, making her directorial debut with the National Theatre, said: “I knew I had to direct Underdog: The Other Other Brontë immediately after reading it.

“It has such charisma as it introduces us to the women behind the iconic Brontë name. Funny, whip smart and full of the complexity of sisterhood, Sarah’s writing is everything you want from a script.”

Playing the sisters are Gemma Whelan (Charlotte), Adele James (Emily) and Rhiannon Clements (Anne). Also in the cast is James Phoon who plays their brother, Branwell, who also died in 1848, aged 31.

Underdog: The Other Other Brontë is in the Dorfman Theatre at the National Theatre until May 25.

It will run at Northern Stage from June 7 to 22 and tickets are on sale already at the box office — tel. 0191 2305151 — or via the theatre website.


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