WE ARE THREE SISTERS: with author Blake Morrison

We Are Three Sisters jacket

We Are Three Sisters by Blake Morrison (£9.99)

Poet, playwright and novelist Blake Morrison grew up in striking distance from Haworth, the village once home to the Brontë family, and describes his latest play for Northern Broadsides, We are Three Sisters, as ‘a kind of homecoming’. Here he explains the enjoyment of dramatising the Brontë’s lives, lifting the gloom and misery so often written about, and using Chekhov’s Three Sisters as a guiding inspiration.

Charlotte Brontë liked to give the impression nothing of interest ever happened to her and her sisters – Haworth being a remote spot, and life at the parsonage lacking in incident. And yet the lives of the Brontës have been retold – on stage, on film, in fiction, even as ballet – as often as their novels have been adapted. That’s because they raise such fascinating questions. How did three sisters come to write such groundbreaking novels? What was the chemistry between them? Why did they adopt pseudonyms? What experience, if any, did they have of being in love? How did they cope with their wayward, drug- and booze-addicted brother Branwell? How congenial was the influence of their father Patrick, whose health they constantly worried about, but who outlived them all? How feminist were they? How political in their thinking? Far from being uneventful, the lives of the Brontës are so full of psychological interest and dramatic potential that it’s hard to know where to start.

For me the starting point was Chekhov, whose play Three Sisters explores many of the themes that preoccupied the Brontës: work, education, marriage, the role of women, the dangers of addiction, the risks of flirtation, the rival claims of country and city, the stirrings of political unrest. The parallels are no mere coincidence. According to Chekhov’s biographer, Donald Rayfield, one of the books he ordered for the library of his home town, Taganrog, and which he kept for nearly a month before sending it on, was an account of the Brontës by Olga Peterson (a Russian married to an Englishman). The fact that Chekhov’s dancing teacher at school was a Greek called Vrondi, and in demotic Greek (which Chekhov knew a little) Brontë and Vrondi are virtual homonyms, may have tickled his fancy still further…Wherever possible, I’ve tried to be true to the Brontës’ thoughts and feelings. As well as drawing on Juliet Barker’s biography, I’ve used words that appear in the novels, Charlotte’s letters, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography. Here, for example, is Gaskell’s account of Charlotte telling her father about Jane Eyre:

‘Papa, I’ve been writing a book.’

‘Have you, my dear?’

‘Yes, and I want you to read it.’

‘I’m afraid it will try my eyes too much.’

‘But it is not in manuscript: it is printed.’

‘My dear! You’ve never thought of the expense it will be!…’

The Brontë story is usually shrouded in darkness and misery. We are Three Sisters tries to disperse the gloom and to highlight resilience instead. Despite the tragic events of their childhood (the deaths of their mother and of two of their sisters), Charlotte, Emily and Anne were not pathetic victims of fate, but strong-minded, independent and resourceful women. Nor was Haworth a godforsaken spot in the back of beyond: as Juliet Barker shows in her marvellous biography of the Brontës, both the industry and the intellectual life of the region were thriving. Patrick Brontë has often been stereotyped as grim and reclusive. But he used his position to campaign fiercely for better education and sanitation for the people of Haworth. Another stereotype about the Brontës is their lack of humour. But there’s a playful air to some of Charlotte’s letters. I wouldn’t call We are Three Sisters a comedy, exactly, but with Chekhov’s encouragement I’ve tried to let in a little lightness.

WE ARE THREE SISTERS: REHEARSAL SHOT

Blake Morrison in rehearsal with Sophia Di Martino (Emily), Catherine Kinsella (Charlotte) and Rebecca Hutchinson (Anne). Photo by Nobby Clark.

This is an edited extract from the author’s Foreword to the published script. Blake Morrison’s new playWe are Three Sisters – is on tour throughout the UK with Northern Broadsides until 26th November 2011, click here for full tour details and to purchase tickets. NHB are proud to publish the playscript alongside the world premiere tour – to order your copy with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed). Click here to watch the production trailer.

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Spotlight: Headlong’s DECADE

Decade jacket

Decade (Nick Hern Books, £10.99)

As Decade, Headlong’s imaginative investigation of 9/11 and its legacy, opens in London, NHB Commissioning Editor Matt Applewhite considers a play publisher’s role in documenting the theatre of our times – and why it’s worth pulling out all the stops to do so.

When, in 2009, Caryl Churchill wrote Seven Jewish Children, her short, sharp response to the situation in Gaza, the Royal Court programmed and produced the play within weeks. As Caryl’s publisher, but also as individuals similarly concerned by the crisis, we felt it was important to publish the play alongside its run. Printed copies were given free of charge to all audience members, and the play is still freely available as a PDF download on our website, enabling it to be read, studied and hotly debated around the world.

Since theatre is the art form most able to react to and explore, in imaginative ways, major world events as they happen, our responsibility as a theatre publisher is to respond likewise. Whilst the work itself might be performed for only a very short time, publication will guarantee the play an ongoing life. Bringing permanence to the essentially ephemeral is the guiding principle behind the publication of any play; when the work combines a wider but immediate significance with something of lasting artistic value, it can feel even more vital.

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Headlong, Rupert Goold’s theatre company, has a track record of producing provocative, challenging theatre about urgent, contemporary issues. In their productions of Lucy Prebble’s ENRON and Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London, the Big Subjects of financial meltdown and climate change were respectively explored, in brilliantly theatrical and exhilarating ways. To mark ten years since 9/11, the company began work on their Decade project, commissioning twenty writers from both sides of the Atlantic (and beyond) to respond to the events of that day, and what has happened in the world since.

We all know the profound impact that 9/11 has had on international politics and global security, but the twenty plays making up Decade are all the more powerful for telling us the stories of individuals. So we see the Muslim shopkeeper who has a brick thrown through his window, the souvenir-seller at Ground Zero who seduces weeping tourists, the widows who meet up every anniversary, the passengers grounded at a unnamed airport, the young US solider and the photo which makes her infamous, and – almost comically – the person born on 11th September who must evermore share her birthday with a date remembered for all the wrong reasons. Through these stories we glimpse a bigger picture of how all our lives have changed by varying degrees in various ways.

Decade production shot (photo: Tristram Kenton)

A scene from Decade by Headlong Theatre (photo by Tristram Kenton)

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We’d been discussing the possible publication of these plays for a few months with Headlong, but it was finally confirmed less than two weeks ago that they’d like us to publish all twenty pieces in a single volume and in time for press night. Eight working days is not a long time to get any play into print, from signing a contract to having finished copies, via the processes of typesetting, proofreading, copyediting and design, not to mention the actual printing of the book. And the challenge is all the greater when there are twenty playwrights and their agents to deal with, twenty contracts to be negotiated, twenty plays to be typeset, etc, etc. – and a book of 256 pages to be produced. Thanks to the goodwill, cooperation and hard work of a lot of people, copies were on sale to audiences at the press night.

And, after the production ends on 15th October, and the attention around the tenth anniversary of 9/11 has passed, copies of the publication will still be on sale. Just as the plays explore the legacy of a moment in history, they will have a legacy themselves.

The NHB publication of the twenty plays that make up Decade is available here. To order your copy for £10.99 with free UK P&P add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed). 

To see Headlong’s thrilling production of Decade running at St Katharine Docks, London, until 15th October, book via the National Theatre Box Office here