“This play has been a classic example of don’t judge a book by its cover,” Kennedy tells me. “But it’s been so interesting as even though the story is old, it’s also very now. Anne Bronte’s life is very apt for this day and age.”
Leeds-based Gondal Theatre Company are preparing for their upcoming performance to The Glass Bell, a new work focusing on the life and work of Yorkshire-born Victorian author Anne Bronte on the 200th anniversary of her birth. Her tale is far from plain sailing as the play explores her struggle to be taken seriously as a female writer, the sibling rivalry between Anne and her sisters and their brother’s opium addiction and mental deterioration. Speaking to Kennedy and Keira, the marketing and outreach team for the company who play Anne and Charlotte Bronte respectively, it is evident that they are not only thrilled to be performing again but are also impassioned by their subject choice of arguably the most underrated of the Bronte sisters.
“I think the fact that her works are seen as some of the first feminist novels really drew us to her but back then her books weren’t even considered very good,” explains Kennedy.
“From the writings of others, she was described very often as the frail and weak sister, but she definitely also had a backbone,” Keira adds. “Being the youngest she was left on her own at home quite a bit but when she got given the responsibility of other people’s children [as a governess] it made her more tough and thick-skinned”
Yet, as well as being the minds behind some of the greatest literary triumphs of the 18th century, the affectionate yet turbulent relationship between the three Bronte sisters (Anne, Charlotte, and Emily) has been a source of fascination for historians, critics and aficionados alike. “For Anne’s part, she has more of a loving relationship with Emily, but she looks up to Charlotte and because she is the oldest and has so much talent. I think she takes Charlotte’s wisdom very seriously as a trait,” says Kennedy.
“Emily and Charlotte are quite fiery. They both feel quite responsible for Anne but are more confident than her so there are moments in the play where they gang up on her. Charlotte feels maternal instinct for Anne because she is born not long before their mother dies. She wants to look out for her but at the same time they are in the same field, so she does see her as competition,” Keira adds. “I have two sisters and it’s been so interesting putting my own experiences from those relationships into the play.”
Despite the period setting of the performance, the company has not been afraid to experiment to give their story a modern twist. When I ask about their incorporation of live music, the pair become elated. “We have it stuck in our heads all the time,” Keira tells me excitedly. “There are some very talented musicians in the cast and they have written some original pieces and also play some covers that fit really well into the storyline. It’s a very modern folk style, acoustic with lots of guitars; it’s not classical by any means. I would listen to it on my Spotify chill playlist – I love it!”
Nevertheless, even with the Kennedy’s and Keira’s exterior enthusiasm, they both confess that devising the play has not come without its post-pandemic challenges. “It has been hard to get used to, we won’t lie. One thing I found really difficult from an actor’s perspective is how to show relationships with people when you can’t go within two metres of them. As an actor it’s really challenging to show your affection or love for someone without being able to do anything physical,” admits Keira.
Kennedy agrees: “you show your emotions ten times more from every part of your body because you are doing it from so far away.” But on-stage social distancing is only the half of it. “Even entrances and exits off stage making sure you’re not crossing anyone too close. It’s a lot to think about. Also, we have had to be really clever with how we place props. If Keira gives me a book, it would look like she was passing it to me but I would have to pick up a different hidden one instead.”
Frustrations for the actors don’t just come from the rehearsal room either. In the wake of this year’s pandemic, the theatre industry is on its knees and Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s proposition that those in the arts should “retrain and find other jobs” is enough to make any thespian’s blood boil. So, how does it feel to be finding your feet in theatre in such an unstable climate?
“I think that the government are really undermining how much money the theatre and performance industry gives to the economy,” Kennedy states. “I don’t know anyone who hasn’t gone to at least one kind of show and enjoyed it, there is something so special about a live performance. I don’t think they can say to someone you should retrain from a job that can give other people so much joy.”
Keira nods and explains her apprehensions for her future. “It’s really frustrating for us especially as we already know that the theatre industry is a hard industry to get into. So as a graduate, going into it when it’s now this tiny and is in such a bad way, it’s quite disheartening.”
However, it’s not long before the pair’s optimism returns. Keira adds, “Having said this, we really do feel lucky at the minute that we can come in and do this.”
“We have been so thankful this whole time! To be able to do this and put all our skills into something we can put out and be so good,” agrees Kennedy.
The idea of being undermined yet succeeding in the face of adversity leads us right back to The Glass Bell. With the unrelenting drive of the ‘forgotten’ Bronte, the company is still due to stream their performance this week despite all the barriers they have encountered. And with everyone due a bout of escapism now lockdown round 2 is underway, Keira summarises why the play is so crucial for this day and age:
“At the minute theatre is something everybody needs. Although the play has its sad parts, it’s a very positive message to send out overall. The feminism is something everyone can get on board with. The live music is amazing and something everyone needs to hear. I think there is something in it for everyone.”
The Glass Bell by Gondal Theatre Company will be streamed online at 7:30 on Thursday 19th November. More details can be found at stage.leeds.ac.uk