This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë, and the occasion is being marked at the West Yorkshire Playhouse by staging a Brontë season, including a musical about the family, a collaborative digital project entitled Know Your Place and this, a brand new ‘reimagining’ of Brontë’s final novel Villette.
It’s fair to say though, that this isn’t a Villette that Brontë purists will enjoy. Linda Marshall-Griffiths has taken the story of Lucy Snowe, a shy teacher who moves to France, and turned it into the story of Lucy Snowe, a clone in the 22nd century working on an archaeologist dig attempting to find an antidote to a plague that’s threatening to wipe out life on Earth.
Characters familiar to readers of the novel are present and correct, but this is an adaptation in the very loosest of terms. It is, however, an audacious experiment, and a visually stunning one, thanks to a futuristic set design from Jess Curtis and some eye-catching directorial flourishes from Mark Rosenblatt. Andrzej Goulding’s video projections are creepily sinister, and ensure that Brontë’s observations on ubiquitous surveillance seem oddly prescient, even 160 years later.
However, this particular Villette is not without its problems. The first half, in particular, threatens to collapse as the audience struggles to work out what on earth is going on. Marshall-Griffiths’ dialogue is mixed between conventional speech and Lucy’s inner monologue, and with video projections and ghostly, synth-heavy music playing, it becomes a bit of an assault on the senses, and tricky to get a hold on the actual plot, especially with Brontë devotees in the audience sighing and tutting as they realise this isn’t the Lucy Snowe they’ve grown up with.
There’s never much danger of becoming bored though, especially given Laura Elsworthy’s extraordinary performance as Lucy. Elsworthy is an actress who’s always given eye-catching supporting work in productions like The Skriker and Macbeth, but she’s on stage for almost the entire running time here. It’s impossible to keep your eyes off her as she explores her own loneliness and yearning for companionship. It’s a role that can be exhausting to watch at times (especially given Lucy’s jerky, staccato speech patterns), but is appropriately eerie and otherworldly as Elsworthy’s clone tries to discover her innate humanity.
In the second half, the script settles down into something more conventional, and there are some funny, touching scenes as Lucy’s unrequited crush on her colleague John (played with an easy charm by Nana Amoo-Gottfried), friendship with the flirty, flighty Gin and eventual love affair with the endearingly clumsy Paul. There’s also plenty of fun to be had in spotting the references to the original novel: Lucy’s line of closure regarding John – “you are good, you are beautiful but you are not mine” – is intact, and it’s intriguing to see how Marshall-Griffiths deals with Paul’s eventual banishment and implied fate.
It’s an imaginative, brave, occasionally baffling reframing of what some people consider to be Charlotte Brontë’s finest novel. It will divide Brontë fans right down the middle, but if it brings a new audience to Yorkshire’s most famous siblings, then Marshall-Griffiths and Rosenblatt should be congratulated.
Villette is on until 15th October 2016 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Click here for more details.