Sunday, July 17, 2022

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall


Co-commissioned and developed by the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) and Sydney Theatre Company, Roslyn Packer Theatre, June 21 – July 16, 2022.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
July 16

Emme Hoy writes “I’m the same age Anne was when she wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and I think the sting in the tail of this story is how little has changed when the same story is tackled by two young women centuries (and continents) apart.”  

The novel, ending “Till then, farewell, Gilbert Markham.  Staningley, June 10th, 1847” is written in the form of letters and diary entries, and begins “You must go back with me to the autumn of 1827” as Markham begins his first letter to his brother-in-law, Jack Halford.  Jack had, at their last meeting, told stories about his youth to Gilbert, who had not responded in kind at the time.  Now he writes his story – of meeting and finally marrying Helen Graham – as a way of hoping to make up for his rudeness.

When reading the letters we are put in the position of Jack, but as the story proceeds, much of what is happening is written from an ‘absent author’ point of view, rather than as Markham’s personal observations.  Emme Hoy has very cleverly used ‘speaking directly’ to us at points of emotional tension by the characters in Markham’s story, including from Markham himself, so that we hear what all the characters think and feel about each other as the mystery of Helen Graham’s presence at Wildfell Hall is unravelled.

It’s not surprising, then, that ‘Acton Bell’ published the work in 3 volumes in 1848.  My Kindle has 554 pages.  

I found Emme Hoy’s two hour stage adaptation a wonderful surprise.  I can’t imagine the time and the imagination she has put into so successfully telling us the story in action, with every moment emotionally re-defining each character as they act upon and react to each other.  ‘Wildfell Hall’ is just so right for this den of suspicion, intrigue, violence, sexual impropriety – and even some hope.  

I can imagine something of the workshop process that must have made rehearsals into dramatic scenes in their own right until just the exact tone of voice, length of potent silence and height of emotional outburst became established.  For me, the closeness of the three women – writers Ann Brontë, Emme Hoy and director Jessica Arthur – and the power of their impact on the actors was clear and present throughout that two hours.

The relevance of seeing how the series of men treated Helen, talked about her (and women more generally) and behaved towards each other as males of the species cannot be questioned in the days of Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins.  Though the attitudes and actions of the women in this story require some critical thinking as well. The play’s presentation just as our election results were being finalised – think of those ‘teal’ women – looked like a great sense of timing, even if it must have been a matter of luck in these pandemic years.  

It was Covid-19 that prevented my wife and I reviewing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall at the beginning of the season as planned.  To catch up on its final day made those four vaccinations and anti-virals of more worth than I can find words to say.

Tuuli Narkle as Helen Graham,
holding Danielle Catanzariti as her son, Arthur
in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Sydney Theatre Company 2022

Photo by Prudence Upton