DOES having a famous father like Jonathan Pryce, who has just starred in a high-profile BBC programme about the Brontes, make it more difficult or easier for his daughter Phoebe to take on the stage role of Anne Bronte’s 1848 heroine Helen Graham?

“I honestly can’t tell you because all I know is that I’ve got nothing else to compare it to. I owe a great deal to my mum (actress Kate Fahy) and dad and I’ve got two brothers who aren’t actors, so one of us had to do it. I was fortunate enough to be taken along to see lots of wonderful things when I was growing up. I’m sure that’s the reason I’m doing this career, but harder or easier I don’t know. It’s never an easy business to get into to, but I’m just grateful for what I’m doing,” says Phoebe about being cast as the mysterious young widow who becomes The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, adapted from what is thought to be the UK’s first feminist novel.

“My dad had such a wonderful time doing To Walk Invisible that he was very touched when he found out I was doing this. Dad grew so fond of all the Bronte stories playing Patrick Bronte, particularly Anne, that he was glad to chat about my role. He’s been away a long time and we haven’t had too much time to discuss my rehearsals.”

Jonathan didn’t offer his daughter any advice about playing a Bronte character who turns up at a desolate estate with her small son and tries to live in isolation from a nearby village but attracts the attention of a young farmer called Gilbert Markham (Michael Peavoy). The play runs at York Theatre Royal from this week until May 6, with York’s Ben Wood, ten, and Alexander Savkovic, 11, sharing the role of Helen’s son Arthur.

“It’s always exciting to get involved in projects that haven’t been kind of explored to what I would consider to be its full capacity. Obviously, Anne is the lesser-known of the sisters. I didn’t know the novel before and I’m very ashamed of that now because I think it’s so wonderful because Anne was an unsung hero. This is a story that was way ahead of its time and it’s a great honour to be part of it,” adds Phoebe.

Was she tempted to look at Tara Fitzgerald’s popular TV version of Helen in 1996?

“I actually didn’t look at any other version and most of the things I do try, if I haven’t seen an adaptation before, I tend to steer clear of other shows so that I can, hopefully, make something completely new. We can then make it our own as a cast and take that journey with the director... but I definitely will watch Tara Fitzgerald when I’m finished because I love period drama. It’s been a bit tortuous not sneaking a look at things like this,” Phoebe laughs.

She is surprised there have been so few productions of The Tenant and says: “I can only speak about our adaptation which I feel makes the script really sing, and is down to playwright Deborah McAndrew. Pieces from the novel that haven’t been included tend to enhance the stage show rather than take anything away.”

Some might speculate that a drama with a female lead might not have had the same support in earlier times. “I would very much hope that this would be irrelevant today, although the play does have some great male parts. I hope that’s why The Tenant hasn’t been done too often before. We can only hope to change any attitudes towards the need for dramas with a strong male lead by staging productions like this. I sadly think that some people think like this, but that’s got to change.”

Phoebe has cut her teeth on The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest at Shakespeare’s Globe, but does The Tenant count as the highlight of her career so far?

“Absolutely, it’s a total honour to play this part and my character goes on a complete journey over six years. Obviously, I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare before, but I feel very lucky,” she says.

Helen is in the run from an abusive husband, an issue which still earns newspaper and internet media headlines today. “We talked about a lot of different issues while we were in rehearsal and we had the opportunity to have the group called Fort Alice come in. It helps women suffering domestic violence and I did have an opportunity to speak to a couple of women who have been through this experience themselves. You only want to do a play that can effect change and I do think this York Theatre Royal and Octagon Theatre Bolton work is so relevant to today. Some of the issues are just as they were 200 years ago and we were astounded that we’d be reading something in the script that had been written by this woman so long ago.”

Does Phoebe agree with the theory that Anne based Helen’s husband on her troubled brother Bramwell. “Yes, it’s not one of those things we’ve firmly fixed on, but you can see how Anne was strongly influenced by her surroundings and we know that one of the people affected by alcoholism was her brother. It’s impossible to think that she wasn’t influenced by him,” she says.

Another issue was that reprints of The Tenant were, at one stage, suppressed by Anne’s more famous sister Charlotte. “There was a lot of speculation and nobody could be quite sure why, but one of the things might have been that it was exposing Bramwell and Charlotte might not have wanted his memory to be spoiled, or possibly that she didn’t want her sister to have a successful novel. We really don’t know, but there are so many rumours online.”

  • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, York Theatre Royal, opened last night and runs to Saturday, May 6. Box office: 01904-623568 or

Post-show discussion on Wednesday, May 3.