Underdog: The Other Other Brontë ★★★ National Theatre | Mar 27 - May 25, 2024


To satisfy 19th century prejudices, the three Brontë sisters had to present themselves as male writers. In response to current fashion, this show presents them as feminists with serious sibling rivalry issues and the cursing capacity of truckers. Ironically, the play titled Underdog: The Other Other Brontë which we might expect to be about Anne (Rhiannon Clements) is, in fact, all about Charlotte (Gemma Whelan). In line with our current obsession with the notion of celebrity, Charlotte is seen through the lens of her remark that she wished to be "forever known." She is presented as ambitious to the point of stealing her younger sister Anne's ideas and actually maliciously suppressing publication of her sibling's work. It is hard to believe that this is the woman who wrote Jane Eyre with its deeply religious sensibility. In fact, the profoundly religious context within which all the sisters lived is completely ignored as the focus is on their career rivalry. Anne is presented as the true radical who is too modest and self-effacing to stand up to Charlotte's plagiarism, while the relationship of Emily (Adele James) and Charlotte isn't very deeply explored. Emily's issue seems to be more with her feckless brother Branwell (James Phoon) whom for comic relief she pours buckets of water over. The moors which were such a central part of the sisters' imaginative world only make a brief appearance at the beginning of Act I in a clever set designed by Grace Smart, but they soon disappear. The current penchant for gender bending casting is reflected in Nick Blakeley taking on the parodic roles of Mrs. Gaskell and Anne's employer, Mrs Ingham. In Charlotte's forays into third-person, ahistorical narrative and literary criticism, she frequently reminds us of the year, "What can you expect in 1845?" This is a work that is also very much of its time, and playwright, Sarah Gordon, has given us Brontës reflecting the values of 2024.

Rated: ★★★

Reviewed by J.C.
Photo by Isha Shah

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