Preview: We Are Three Sisters

Blake Morrison's new play We Are Three Sisters explores the lives of the Brontë sisters and Sophie Haydock speaks to the cast

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We may have read their literature, but how clearly can we imagine the lives of the Brontë sisters? Theirs was a story of passion and ambition – and a constant struggle against death – played out in the northern town of Haworth and on Yorkshire’s moors over 150 years ago. Now a new play, We Are Three Sisters, by the playwright, poet and author Blake Morrison, is set to re-imagine Charlotte, Emily and Anne’s tragic but brilliant lives.

With a nod to the Russian author Chekov (who wrote Three Sisters) and a dash of poetic licence – Morrison admits he compressed the events of several years into a much shorter time-scale – We Are Three Sisters is a relevant, evocative and, above all, witty take on the lives of the Brontës, who between them, wrote some of the most iconic novels of all time, including Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Directed by Barrie Rutter, the artistic director of the award-winning Northern Broadsides company, the play will open at Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, on 9 September and tours the UK until 26 November.

In July, in the intimate surroundings of the Baptist Chapel in Haworth, Morrison and the cast are gathered for a rehearsal performance of the play and some afternoon tea.

Sophia Di Martino, who plays Emily, is a graduate of Salford University’s Performing Arts degree and is well known for her role as Polly Emmerson in Casualty. Di Martino is clearly enamoured with the role, enthusiastically conveying her excitement to be playing such a strong woman. Of course, she is a fan of her character’s work:

“I rate her as a writer, especially her poetry – it’s beautiful. And Wuthering Heights is incredible. For a woman to write that when she did is outstanding, it’s got every single social taboo in there. It’s brilliant. I really want to do Emily justice, because she was a real person.”

Di Martino admits however that she feels pressure to depict her character accurately.

“She didn’t like the limelight at all, so there’s not an awful lot of information about her.”

Di Martino says she can see aspects of her own character in the sisters.

“The fact they’re not wallflowers, that they were resilient, hard-working women. I’d like to think I could identify with that. They’re certainly the kind of women I respect.”

One challenge with the play, says Morrison, is that the Brontës are often misrepresented.

“The family were very resilient and I wanted to bring that out,” he says. “They’re normally shown as passive victims, victims of tragedy who had no control over their own lives. Actually, they took as much control as they could. They’re not self-pitying, but resilient and stoical and organised.”

But, he adds, they also had a mischievous side – a pinch of northern humour. “There was certainly something in Charlotte. When I read her letters, I don’t think, what a miserable person. There’s something quite playful there.” That’s part of the reason he tries to banish the gloom and doom.

“The humour is really important,” he adds. “I don’t want the audience to be ground down by the force of their despair,” he says.

To anyone visiting Haworth, it is obvious that the landscape of rugged hills and simplicity of nature inspired the sisters.

“Charlotte talked about life as dreary in Haworth,” says the playwright, “that nothing ever happens. But look at what was happening in their heads – extraordinary. That is what literature is about. You don’t have to have had all the experiences, you just have to be able to imagine them.”

Morrison himself was born in Yorkshire. “I love working with Northern Broadsides,” he says. “I’m a big fan of the north. How could you not be? It still feels like home.”

So why should people come to see We Are Three Sisters? “It’s entertaining and informative – and it’s the real Yorkshire deal,” says Di Martino. Will the Southerners get it? “I don’t care if they don’t,” smiles Rutter. “This is a Yorkshire play and we want to keep it that way.”

We Are Three Sisters until 17 September: The Viaduct Theatre, Halifax; 20-24 September: The Lowry, Salford; 27 Sept – 1 Oct: The Dukes, Lancaster

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