The contrasting real-life and imaginative worlds of the Bronte sisters has inspired the latest production from Shared Experience, writes Terry Grimley...
It's one of the great mysteries of English literature: how did three spinsters living in isolation in a remote Yorkshire village become published authors, two of them each writing one of the great Victorian novels?
While the fascination of the Brontes has never gone away, it is receiving an extra impetus at the moment from the 150th anniversary of the death of Charlotte Bronte.
Next month Frantic Assembly and the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, will unveil a dramatisation of Charlotte's most autobiographical novel, Villette. Meanwhile, Shared Experience brings Polly Teale's new play Bronte, to Warwick Arts Centre from tonight.
Teale, joint artistic director of Shared Experience with Nancy Meckler, has a longstanding professional interest in the Brontes.
"I did an adaptation of Jane Eyre about ten years ago, and then I went on and did a piece about Jean Rhys, who wrote a prequel to Jane Eyre," she recalls.
"Then I got fascinated by the Brontes' own life story and I suppose the question in my mind when I was writing this was how it was possible that unmarried sisters, living on the Yorkshire Moors with limited lifeexperience, were able to write these books. Where did it come from? What was it in their circumstances that created this astonishing creativity? The three sisters, brother and father were all published authors.
"The whole play is an attempt to find an answer to that question. In every scene we're trying to get closer to understanding what the particular conditions were of their lives and how the novels came about.
"One of the crucial things you have to remember is that as children they were encouraged to read. Their father was an Irish peasant who ended up going to Cambridge. He was absolutely crucial in fostering their imaginative lives. I think there is no question that that's one of the major reasons they had an inner life, and that makes them different."
The only two Bronte titles which are household names are Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Emily's only novel, Wuthering Heights. But presumably Teale read the complete Bronte works in researching the play?
"I did. I have to be honest and say I read in and out of Shirley. I didn't read it cover to cover. But I read everything else, all the poetry and diary entries and quite a lot of biography.
"It's really interesting to read all the novels when you're thinking of the person the novel came out of as a character. It's fascinating to read a novel like Wuthering Heights alongside a novel like Jane Eyre because they're so different.
"The sensitivity behind them is very different because we know Emily and Charlotte were very different. Charlotte had this huge drive towards public recognition - very ambitious, very driven. She made all the effort to get the novels and poetry published, whereas Emily was a recluse who spent as little time with other people as possible. She was very odd with strangers.
"What I find fascinating is here are two women responding to these circumstances in very different ways. In Jane Eyre Charlotte is putting herself at the moral centre of the story, whereas Wuthering Heights is an almost completely amoral novel. You have the sense that it is written by someone who is outside normal society's rules of what is allowed."
One of the ironies of the Bronte story is that while the sisters overcame the odds stacked against Victorian women, their only brother Branwell's life ended not only in relative failure, but in dissolution and mental illness. However, Polly Teale sees a logical explanation.
"Because there were such high expectations of him, unless he did something absolutely extraordinary in his life he would have failed. I think it was quite overwhelming, quite crushing, and he became a kind of fantasist in the end. It's very hard for people to know, but I think at the end of his life he became a schizophrenic."
In the play, Teale speculates that Branwell may have played a role in feeding the sisters' erotic imagination.
" This is very much an imaginative response, but if you think of growing up in those circumstance where your brother is the only man you have ever seen naked, it seems likely that he was a focus for some of their sexual curiosity. He was the only one in the family who had any kind of active sex life, and in the play you see him describe these sexual liaisons with other women."
Shared Experience has a reputation for productions which explore different layers of reality, like Polly Teale's production of A Doll's House in which literally Nora carried her sinister creditor, Krogstad, on her back.
"What's exciting is that you can depict the dreary, repetitious round of their domestic life but you can also show feelings of passion and fury and excitement, and to place these worlds side by side is something theatre is uniquely able to do. It seems an appropriate story to tell in the theatre."