THE MOORS, Siren Theatre Co and Seymour Centre at the Reginald Theatre, 6 February-1 March 2019. Photography by Clare Hawley - above - Brielle Flynn and Romy Bartz; below - Alex Francis and Thomas Campbell; below again - Diana Popovska
Jen Silverman is a peripatetic American playwright who’s made a habit of cherrypicking stories from all over the world. The Moors is typical of her interests: about the Brontë sisters, about their wuthering heights and penchant for scaring each other senseless, about turning inside out the things we think we know. And at the same time, it’s not about any of that, at all.
In this instance, instead of “mad” Mrs Rochester being incarcerated in the attic it’s dissolute younger brother Branwell who is walled in upstairs. We learn this because a young governess, Emilie (Brielle Flynn), arrives to take up a post made amorously appealing by Branwell’s letters and is puzzled that he is nowhere to be found, and neither is there a child.
Instead, Emilie finds she has been enticed to the lonely household by Agatha (welcome return to the stage of a riveting Romy Bartz), austere elder sister of the interned man and also of Huldey (Enya Daly) whose feverish diary-keeping and obsession with fame and talent – of which she has none – provides the only heat in this chilly place.
Kate Gaul has designed and directed The Moors and the synchronicity is spectacular. The tall black box of the Reg has extra sets of bleachers on either side and sheer drapes at the back, confining a raised revolve whose surface gleams like water. The circle slowly turns for most of the show , the effect is to reveal vivid characters and events from different angles and it’s surprising how this alters perception and heightens imagination.
The sisters are served by parlour maid, Marjory (Diana Popovska) in whose capacious apron pocket is a mob cap. This she dons when morphing into scullery maid Mallory, a resentful lackey who also assumes a fearsome monobrow. It might be a trick of lighting, but it’s very effective, as is the way her hands take on a translucent prehensile acquisitiveness when she’s the upstairs maid. It’s a disconcerting, funny performance.
Disconcerting is the guiding principle of the production. Gaul is bold in licensing risky flights of Surrealism from the actors, and this when they’re not eliciting guilty laughter and gasps of disbelief (she’s not going to do that, is she?), all grounding the show in unanticipated realism and pathos.
The director has also made fine choices in having Nate Edmondson compose the soundtrack/soundscape: from the opening morning birdsong through lushly-orchestrated Korngold-esque fragments, the music-sound is virtually another character. And Fausto Brusamolino adds a valuable dimension with his lighting design.
Out of left field, however, (just in case you’re settling into a costume drama with added Gothic) come two perfectly reasonable characters: the Mastiff (Thomas Campbell) and the Moorhen (Alex Francis). In this cockeyed universe it makes sense that kindness, thoughtfulness, humanity and moments of quiet reflection are to be found in the two non-humans. Naturally, the Moorhen has short term memory issues, but the dog patiently reminds her in between bouts of enthusiasm. However, Moorhen is sufficiently instinctually acute to be a bit suspicious of Mastiff’s unruly temperament despite his protestations of love.
It’s the season for turning previously acceptable social and historical norms inside out (see Mary Stuart) and The Moors does this with wit. On the face of it, the steely Agatha is the least likely Casanova to sashay out across the blasted heath, but as played with deliciously seductive panache by Romy Bartz, it’s quickly obvious that Emilie has no choice but to succumb!
Unfortunately, as Emilie falls under Agatha’s spell, so Huldey is bewitched – by Marjory’s cunning flattery. So inflated is Huldey by this vision of writerly fame she finally goes off like the Hindenberg and the outcome is messy.
That there were going to be tears before bedtime is never in any doubt: how they happen is by turns comical and tragic. If the Brontës had lived longer than their painfully short lives, they might have come up with some of these ideas to amuse each other. Recommended.