Based on the novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë, Concert Theatre under the direction of An-Ting Chang, a concert pianist and chemistry and theatre graduate, presents a novel way of combining classical music performance with theatrical production. The result is a powerful coupling that faithfully recreates the emotional intensity of Brontë’s story, performed in an unforgettable period setting.
Kings Weston House is a Grade I listed Georgian mansion designed in 1719 by Sir John Vanbrugh, the man responsible for Blenheim Palace. Currently being restored to its former glory, the house sits at the top of a hill that looks out across the Bristol Channel. Inside, a performance space has been created in the astonishing portrait gallery. Forty or so large Georgian likenesses look down at us from pleasing light blue walls that also host a giant elk skull and antlers. An ornate ceiling rose finally arrests the eye some thirty feet above our heads.
A little odd, perhaps, to lavish a review with an entire paragraph about a venue, but if you go, you’ll see why it plays such a key role in a production that takes as much care over where it plays, as to how a story can be told. Future dates on this Concert Theatre tour include the National Portrait Gallery, London and the Holburne Museum in Bath.
Using piano accompaniment to enhance drama is nothing new. Silent movies were nothing without the emotions being stirred by screen-side instrumentalists. For Tenant, Diana Brekalo’s playing of Scriabin, Mozart and Brahms becomes more of an intuitive ‘third voice’, always working in close relation and response to the two actors, Emily Smith May as the reclusive Helen Graham and Martin Bonger as her would-be suitor Gilbert Markham and former husband Arthur Huntingdon. Brekalo gave an assured performance, accentuating the emotional power within Brontë’s story, despite the trials of an in-house grand piano with occasionally sticky keys.
Smith May and Bonger seemed entirely at home in the large Georgian room with audience seating down two sides. Three large freestanding open picture frames formed metaphorical entranceways for the two actors, while Smith May also had the use of an artist’s easel.
Helen has done the unthinkable. She has left her abusive and alcoholic husband and made off to start a new life with her young son at remote Wildfell Hall, where she hopes to become a self-supporting artist. Young farmer Markham is attracted to this curious newcomer. Smith May’s Helen appears more flirtatious than in the Brontë novel, but she conveys a steadfast independence commensurate with the novelist’s vision. Her Helen is moralistic but has pent-up energy to express. Bonger commands a swathe of emotions, first as the moody, sometimes jealous, love-struck Markham, later as the feckless rake Huntingdon on a downward moral spiral.
Bravura performances from both, Smith May and Bonger lace this quintessentially feminist tale with gentle sentiment, tugged heartstrings and raging despair. ★★★★☆ Simon Bishop 27th April 2017
Wed 26 & Thu 27 April | 7.30pm Kings Weston House, Bristol
Fri 28 April | 6.30pm National Portrait Gallery, London
Sun 30 April | 7.30pm Drill Hall, Chepstow
Tue 23 May | 7.30pm Bury St Edmunds Festival
Wed 24 May | 7.30pm Sarum College, Salisbury
Thu 25 May | 7.30pm Holburne Museum, Bath
Photo by and (c) Paul Blakemore