To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Anne Bronte’s birth, Gondal Theatre Company (comprised of third-year students at the University of Leeds) celebrate and honour the “forgotten” Bronte sister with a self-devised performance of The Glass Bell. A play that gives audience members a complex and intimate portrayal of Anne Bronte – a woman whose work was often undervalued and ignored during her lifetime – The Glass Bell is a contemporary exploration of feminism, creativity and tragedy.
Getting its name from Glass Town (an imaginary place, thought-up by the Bronte sisters), and Bell (a pseudonym that each of the sisters used when publishing their novels), The Glass Bell is a new, modern portrayal of the Bronte family – with all of their quirks and vulnerabilities. Opening with live, acoustic music, designed and directed by Annabel Marlow, Phoebe Langan and Daisy Fisher, audiences instantly find themselves immersed in the production and the movement of the actors. Cleverly interlacing the story of the Bronte family with narratives of Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the play parallels Anne’s fictional characters with her own life, showing just how much the family history was an influence to the Bronte’s writing.
Alongside focusing on Anne Bronte’s transition from a playful child to a governess, the performance also explores the struggles women faced to be taken seriously as writers in the nineteenth century, sibling rivalries, and Branwell’s opium addiction and eventual deterioration. Despite only being ninety minutes in length, the play is filled to brim with content, it’s impossible to get bored. What really stood out thematically, though, was the importance of reputation in the nineteenth century; upholding “the Bronte name” influences every single action of the family, becoming (at times) even more important than creative genius. It’s heart-wrenching to watch the sisters struggle with the conflict of their own passions versus the reputation of the family name.
The star of the show is, of course, Kennedy Eccles as Anne Bronte. Stealing every scene she is in, Anne stands out amongst Emily and Charlotte as the actress does an excellent job of bringing to life the sister’s innocence, her love for her siblings and her passion for bringing her imagination to life through stories. It’s impossible not to be enraptured in Anne’s story, and I constantly found myself impatiently waiting for the production to get back to the Bronte sister. If any criticism lies in The Glass Bell, it is in my eagerness for more Anne Bronte.
The set is minimalistic, focusing primarily on the Bronte’s home with a beautifully-crafted tree symbolising Gondal and the creative imagination of the sisters. Uniquely, the performance design also includes a backdrop in which Yorkshire landscapes and animated illustrations are projected. Adding complexity to the stage, the projection successfully immerses audiences in so that you felt you were right there on stage, looking over Anne’s shoulder as she writes and draws. Intimate and utterly original, it was a nice touch that added to the immersive and compelling atmosphere of the play. It was especially effective at the end of the show, in which the Scarborough sea becomes the backdrop, alongside the sound of seagulls to place the audience at peace with Anne as she slowly declines in health.
The Glass Bell is extremely feminist in tone, exploring the issues of being a woman during the nineteenth century. Alongside Agnes leaving her abusive husband, and Rosalie Murray’s claims of double-standards when it comes to courting and romance, one scene that stands out is Mrs. Robinson’s monologue. As she highlights her mission to retain integrity and identity in her relationships with men, the play promotes female agency and independence. It was a breath of fresh air as the production worked to make novels and individuals, over 200 years in age, distinctly modern.
Filmed post-pandemic, the impact of the COVID-19 restrictions is clearly evident in the play, as actors are firmly two metres away from one another on the stage. For me, while avoidable, these restrictions did have a detrimental impact on the production, stopping actors from portraying their intimacy and affection in the way we all know best: touch. However, despite this, the enthusiasm and energy from the actors entirely makes up for it, and I am eternally grateful for the continuance of theatre during such dangerous and unprecedented times.
Overall, The Glass Bell is a modern production that provides an intimate portrayal of the Bronte sisters, with a clear focus on the “forgotten” sister that many critics tend to dismiss: Anne Bronte. Providing a vulnerable story of three women who have become canonical writers, the play portrays their creativity, their passions, but most importantly their love – for each other and for storytelling. Love is undoubtedly the driving force behind the play, providing a distinctly female take on relationships during the nineteenth century. Ultimately, The Glass Bell is a play that captures the spirit of the Bronte sisters beautifully.
The Glass Bell is currently available to stream on YouTube here.
Words by Lucy Lillystone.
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