When it was published in 1848, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by 28-year-old English novelist Anne Brontë was a strikingly unusual novel. The protagonist, Helen Graham is a mysterious single mother of a young boy who moves into a little village’s abandoned estate, spends her time painting and doesn’t care much what people think of her. Unknown to the villagers, she has left her hard-drinking, adulterous husband, fearing his influence on their son. At a time when women had virtually no individual rights but were virtually the ‘property’ of their husbands, such behaviour was scandalous. Even Anne’s sister, Charlotte Brontë called the novel’s subject “an entire mistake.”
The novel was a popular success but sadly, less than a year after its publication, Anne was dead from tuberculosis. It has now been adapted for the stage by playwright Emme Hoy, who relished the task of converting a 500-page novel into a two-hour play. She was attracted by the fact that unlike her novelist sisters Emily (Wuthering Heights) and Charlotte (Jane Eyre), Anne wrote about brooding (and often cruel) male characters in a negative sense, alongside male heroes who were kind and gentle. “Anne was criticised for the novel’s coarse language and sometimes brutal characters but she argued she was just being realistic. It was that honesty – and insistence on speaking to the urgent, uncomfortable truths that like beneath the stories we tell – which drew me in,” she explains.
Nine actors make up this Sydney Theatre Company cast, playing 16 characters. Sharp-eyed movie fans might recognise Remy Hii (Spider-Man: Far From Home; Crazy Rich Asians) as Helen’s admirer, Gilbert Markham, as well as Tara Morice (Strictly Ballroom) as her aunt/maid/Gilbert’s mother. In the demanding role of Helen, Tuuli Narkle is well supported by Ben O’Toole as her dissolute husband, Arthur, as well as the always watchable Anthony Taufa and veteran actor Steve Rodgers. The characters do not speak with English accents as you might expect, instead they mostly retain their own Australian accents – although they are dressed in period clothing and the set design reflects the era of the novel. Writer Hoy explains her decision thus: “Because this adaptation is about the way today’s world and reality smashes up against Gothic fantasies, I also wanted the language and the casting to reflect modern Australia. It’s attempting to speak to the way ‘then’ and ‘now’ overlap, rather than represent a perfect replica of the period.”
In Victorian England, Anne Brontë’s heroine fled an alcoholic, abusive spouse to pursue a safer, creatively successful life on her own terms. In modern-day Australia where one in six women have experienced violence from a partner and the rate of alcohol consumption is one of the highest in the world, the story of Helen Graham is one still worth engaging with.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Sydney Theatre Company
27 June-16 July, 2022