Suspense, intrigue, comedy and passion — these are only but a small sliver of what the UBC adaptation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is gearing up to serve in its upcoming world premiere this October. Based on the novel by Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall follows Helen Graham, a mysterious and beautiful young woman, as she moves into the small country village of Wildfell to escape her obscure past. Soon, suspicion and rumour surround Helen as she fails to adhere to the strict gender norms and expectations in the traditional religious society in which she is enmeshed.
Adapted by Professor Jacqueline Firkins and directed by MFA directing alumna Sarah Rogers, the play has been produced through a collaborative and immersive class project. Francis Winter, fourth-year BFA student who plays Gilbert Markham, delves into the development of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
“This play was actually really interesting to work on because we began with a workshop to work the script. It is a new script by a member of faculty here at UBC ... [the actors] had a chance to get together before the production of the play had begun to go over it and work with her on it, iron it out and make sure we were all really happy with it,” said Winter.
While honouring Brontë’s intentions with the original novel through themes of female independence, finding true love, passion, pain and loss, the adaptation has been produced to resonate with contemporary audiences.
“The play seems to sort of stretch itself in many different directions trying to fit in that quality of Jane Austen ... into something that has conventional themes about relationship and sacrifice and marriage and abuse in relationships," said Thomas Elma, returning BFA alumnus playing Arthur Huntington, Helen's husband. "So for that reason alone, I think that it is different. It lives in the past while reaching out to people in the present."
There certainly is a dark underbelly that serves as the foundation for the play.
“Something that I found interesting was that the original novel by Anne Brontë is really a social critique of the permissiveness of certain behaviours in the time," said Winter. "Anne Brontë saw a lot of the obscure side of human behaviour through her brother who was a cad and a drunk while she was working as a governess in the same house as he was the tutor. I think those themes of permissiveness through a lens that values some individuals higher than others really shines through and I think that those are the types of themes that will still resonate with audiences today,” said Winter.
Even with its serious undertones, the show delivers more than a generous dosage of wit and humour from the ongoing banter between the characters to hilarious and relatable family dynamics.
“Our director Sarah has done a wonderful job of adding a lot of physical comedy elements to that as well that aren’t present in the script which really help to brighten the scenes,” said Winter.
For the actors, the work is challenging and exciting while propelling them to delve deeper into the psyche of their characters. However, while the production process has offered up a vast pool of learning opportunities for the cast, conflicting visions have posed some obstacles along the way.
Meegin Pye, a fourth-year UBC BFA student plays the independent female heroine Helen Graham.
“I think the process has been challenging and unique just because it isn’t yet a published play. Many people have stakes in this as well as different visions that aren’t always cohesive," she said. "From an actor’s perspective, negotiating between these visions and trying to make them happen has been a bit challenging because, as well as having our own visions of these characters and how the story happens, it is also the playwright, the director and teachers'."
Given that the original novel is renowned as one of the world’s first feminist novels, perhaps the most enticing aspect of this production is its emphasis on female independence. According to Winter, one key factor that differentiates this play from others produced by the Department of Theatre and Film are the rigid gender dynamics that predominated during the 19th century.
"In this production, the female characters really tell their own stories. They speak for themselves, think for themselves, talk for themselves," he said.
Elms agrees adding, “Hopefully modern audiences will think that, thank god, we have come leaps and bounds since this time period where a woman’s place is fixed and a man’s place is whatever he chooses it to be.”
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall will be playing from October 1-17 in the Frederic Wood Theatre.