Underdog: The Other Other Brontë

In the same way that, for many, Destiny’s Child is Beyonce, the Brontë Sisters is (are?) Charlotte (Jane Eyre).

Accessible, enjoyable, engaging, and very, very funny

When pressed, Kelly Rowland would be Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights).

It would only be the most fervent fan who would immediately name Michelle Williams. Or Anne Brontë, the titular sister of Underdog: The Other Other Brontë, now at the National Theatre’s Dorfman.

But if you’re expecting to learn about the least known Brontë, you may be disappointed. The star – the rock star – of this gloriously funny play is most definitely Charlotte. And it’s a Charlotte unlike any you may have seen before.

Whitewashed reality

Our knowledge of the Brontë’s lives informs our interpretation of their work. The strength of their female characters magnified by being the creations of three modest Yorkshire women, whose short grey lives were filled with bonnets, beatings, and tuberculosis.

In Underdog, writer Sarah Gordon suggests that this knowledge may not be fact. The story of the Brontës may be just that: a story. The roles played by each sister invented, or at least exaggerated, by Charlotte, or more likely, those around her. Her posthumous biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, appears to admit as much in her appearance here.

Knowing of their struggles against adversity increases the appeal and makes their work all the more powerful. Winning underdogs are venerated and mythologised into popular history. A miserable life, a welcomed death, a literary legacy.

But what if that whitewashed reality?

Comic mastery

Here we have a Charlotte Brontë who sticks two fingers up at the woman we think we know. Quite literally. This Charlotte strides through the auditorium wearing red dress and DMs, demanding “What's your favourite Brontë novel?” to unsuspecting audience members. When hearing “Jane Eyre” as the answer, she gives self-congratulatory mini fist pumps.

Gemma Whelan’s Charlotte has the confidence of an X Factor auditionee, not the mild-mannered insecurities of a starving artist. When she writes, she emits gasps and moans of self-adulation at her own words. It is as though her hand holds a vibrator, rather than a quill.

Her ambition is more important than her sisterhood. She thinks nothing of using her sisters as steps up to her deserved place at the literary table. She uses her influence over Anne for her own benefit – potentially stealing from Anne’s novel Agnes Grey to create her own Jane Eyre.

This may not be factual or fair, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s a possible other scenario that asks what if we allowed women to be ambitious too? What if women didn’t always have to be underdogs to become successful? What if Charlotte was a bit of a bitch?

And Whelan gives a powerhouse of a performance. Her energy and enthusiasm drive the piece. She gives depth to her flaws, maintaining our support for what should be an unlikeable character. Whelan is an expert in comic timing, perfectly pitching every beat to every word, to fill the auditorium with laughter. She is a delight to watch.

Olde English, reimagined

The dialogue is Olde English, reimagined as if it were still spoken today. It has the self-referential, self-aware, fourth wall breaking style of Blackadder. The cast speak with strong Yorkshire accents that demand the use of a coarse dialect. And the script happily supplies, peppering phrases with “bellends” and “fookeds.”

It mocks the costume drama genre. Grace Smart’s staging literally rips apart the naturalistic – and expected – Yorkshire moor which greets us. As it hovers above, locations are represented symbolically, making use of the revolve in ever more amusing ways. A vase rolling by “that used to belong to the Queen” is all that’s needed for a stately home. A painfully slow clip clop of coconut shells infers the 17-hour journey from York to London.

Colour is also added by the all-male supporting cast, who represent other key players and create other environments. Carrying huge blowers and handfuls of leaves, they show the struggle of walking the moors. Dressed in huge grey smocks, with top hats that emit pipe smoke, they speak the dissent of all male writers. With choreographed disco moves, they create a private gentlemen's club that looks like Heaven on a Saturday night.

Cartoonish style

The cartoonish style and meta delivery make the whole thing very light-hearted. It is not to be taken seriously. Historians may feel it is an unfair portrayal of Charlotte, pointing out that there is no evidence of any plagiarism. But this isn’t a Radio 4 documentary. It isn’t rewriting the Brontë history we know and love.

This is more akin to a BBC3 comedy. It aims to be a lot of fun. And it succeeds. It takes the ideas we know and hypothesises. It’s not dissimilar to Upstart Crow, the Ben Elton comedy that bends the truth to make comic fiction out of Shakespeare. Any “Dear Sir” to The Telegraph, decrying factual inaccuracies of the play is just a misreading of the room.

Very, very funny

That said, the comic style makes it difficult to land any serious point. At its undercurrent is a suggestion that only valiant women can be pedestalised. Even then, we will chip away at their position. Whilst this is a valid argument, it doesn’t have much weight here. Particularly, the clunky metaphor that puts Charlotte “back in her box” at the end, feels too obvious, simplistic, and out of place with what we’ve been watching.

Underdog: The Other Other Brontë may not provide a historically accurate story of the Brontës. But don’t let that put you off. As a show, it is accessible, enjoyable, engaging, and very, very funny.

And I did discover something new. Not about the Brontë sisters, particularly. But what it’s like to sit in the Dorfman and be surrounded by the sound of laughter.

Visit Show Website

Reviews by Simon Ximenez

National Theatre, Olivier Theatre

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The Blurb

Charlotte Brontë has a confession about how one sister became an idol, and the other became known as the third sister. You know the one. No, not that one. The other, other one… Anne. This is not a story about well-behaved women. This is a story about the power of words. It’s about sisters and sisterhood, love and jealousy, support and competition.

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