A Life Story rather than a Love Story

Sally Minogue reviews the National Theatre’s touring production of ‘Jane Eyre’

Sally Cookson, the director and key shaper of this adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s best-known novel, places the emphasis of this production very clearly: ‘I like to think of it as a Life story rather than a Love story (the original title was Jane Eyre – an Autobiography) which sees Jane develop from a powerless child into an independent free-thinking adult’. A bildungsroman for the theatre, then, in which the emphasis is on the progress of Jane’s life through different experiences, places, and stages, in each of which her contact with one important other transforms her in some way. That schema underpins this touring version of Jane Eyre, which started life at the Bristol Old Vic as a two-part adaptation of the novel, and was then distilled ‘into a single event’ for the National Theatre.

The NT website offers some brief videos on various aspects of the way this production was conceived and developed. While they are intended mainly for schools – obviously one of the target audiences for this play – these behind-the-scenes films are illuminating for the general viewer. Certainly, they gave me a better understanding of Cookson’s method, which is to work from a carefully cast ensemble of actors, with ‘everyone in the room’ contributing ideas to the devising of the production (using their reading of the novel as the jumping off point). Movement and music in particular are seen as key components in telling the story. Collaboration between actors, director, designers and musicians is an egalitarian process – and I suppose Charlotte Brontë is in there somewhere as a collaborator too.

Interestingly, the dramaturg listed in the programme credits (Mike Akers) makes no appearance in these explanatory films, and that is indicative. In this style of theatre, in which the devising of the action produces the script rather than the other way round, mood, kinetic energy, visual dynamism, balletic interaction and above all music, are more important theatrical tools than the word. Music is placed centrally to the action by having the three-man band right in the middle of the set, with the players being genuinely players – for example, dressed as orphans in the Lowood section. The music, most of it originally composed, was a driving force, and the presence of it mid-action felt genuinely unforced. However, where singing was used as a vehicle for furthering the plot or providing an emotional undercurrent, the inability to make out specific lyrics was a barrier. When the words were clear, or familiar, as in the witty use of Noel Coward’s ‘Mad About the Boy’ as Jane falls helplessly for Rochester, the device worked, though persistent echoes of the gay subtext of Coward’s lyrics might not have been intended. [An enjoyable rendition by Tom Robinson of some of Coward’s original lyrics, including the immortal lines ‘I know that quite sincerely /Housman really wrote / The Shropshire Lad about the boy]

This was, then, a production full of energy. Not for nothing were warnings posted at the entrances to the auditorium: pyrotechnics; loud noises; smoke; strobe lighting. As an audience, we were primed. One major advantage of this approach was that one always felt, even in the miserable midst of the scenes at Lowood, the intense energy in Jane herself. And while we see this being tamed or at least turned inwards, that process is managed by Jane in response to the experiences she meets. Nadia Clifford (replacing, on this tour, the original creator of the role, Madeleine Worrall) was remarkable, emerging from the rebellious child Jane into the corseted teacher-Jane, then at Thornfield becoming her fully feeling self under the heat of Rochester’s gaze (and almost shedding that corset), then leaving that heat behind for the desolation of a journey that finally brings her to her true independent self, ready to return to fulfilment in passionate love and marriage, but within an equalised relationship. In Rochester one could see the distinct shadow of Orson Welles (not a bad shadow to have) – Cookson acknowledges the influence of the 1943 film, which she saw well before she read the novel. [See my previous blog on film versions of Jane Eyre ] This relationship was fully felt, and while this is above all an ensemble production, it’s no use denying that the relationship between Jane and Rochester stands at the centre of any adaptation of the novel.

Against its own precept (more Life story than Love story), the production seems to endorse this centrality, closing the circle with the birth of a baby, rather than keeping it open. Here the drama follows the convention of nineteenth-century fiction: marriage is the only happy ending, and, as in the novel, one cannot help but feel that Jane’s fine fighting spirit is subsumed by society in the end. But another way of seeing it is that she can, finally, accept her own personal happiness precisely because she has previously put her own sense of self before it. Jane’s suffering is cleverly portrayed through the motif of running; each journey is a marathon, a physical and mental test endured by the whole ensemble, loudly, painfully, effortfully, but always longest and furthest by Jane herself. Another motif is that of the framed window, sometimes doubling as a mirror. Jane looks out to a world beyond, but at the same time she looks at her own reflection and is driven further inwards; sometimes she breaks the frame, and sometimes she is held within it. These visual clues and cues are memorable, and sometimes they lift into true theatricality, as when Jane seems to fly on a wind created by her fellow cast members.

My readers may sense a but. I can best explain that by reference to another adaptation – a translation in its strictest sense, Alexander Pope’s eighteenth-century translation of Homer’s Iliad. Dr. Johnson tells us that the classical scholar Richard Bentley commented. ‘It is a pretty poem, Mr Pope, but you must not call it Homer’. Maybe, like any translation from one language to another, an adaptation of a novel for the theatre can never do justice to the original fiction – the genres are too different. However, I’ve recognised elsewhere that an adaptation which seems extraordinarily far from the original can capture its true spirit (see my review of West Yorkshire Playhouse’s re-imagined, futuristic Villette in 2016
here). My objection to this Jane Eyre is rather that it over-simplifies a complex narrative, shapes it too roundly, reduces each of her journeys to the same sort of thing by the repeated device of running, and often flattens rather than expands Jane’s internal journey (as in her three-day trek into the wilderness when she leaves Thornfield). We miss, powerfully, the sense of landscape which imaginatively informs the novel, especially in that dark period of the soul where Jane struggles to keep her sense of self alive, and where nature is both her comforter and feeder (she eats bilberries, ‘gleaming … like jet beads in the heath’ and takes rest on the heath with ‘a low, mossy swell’ as her pillow), but also her tormentor, its beauty taunting her suffering. (Chapter 28)

As these brief quotations remind us, we miss most of all Brontë’s words. When they were used, as in the desolate Bewick conjurings of the wildly imaginative child Jane at Gateshead, or in Jane’s impassioned declaration up on the leads that ‘women feel just as men feel’, or in the intimate exchanges between Rochester and Jane at Thornfield, and between Jane and the dying Aunt Reed, the play came alight. Elsewhere, shorthand was used to cover exchanges or to convey a central idea (Helen Burns describing herself as passive, for example), or words were bypassed altogether at significant moments, in keeping with the production’s central technique. I personally missed iconic phrases, which could so easily have been included. The significant opening line of the novel, ‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day’ (which ushers in Jane’s dwelling in the world of books and her own imagination), was sacrificed for a long drawn-out depiction of Jane’s birth and orphaning. Similarly, as we drew to the ending, there was no ‘Reader, I married him’, which might easily have been incorporated to allow Jane to share her satisfaction and fulfilment with the audience. It could have been done ironically if desired.

My 15-year-old companion, who had recently re-read Jane Eyre, brought a fresh, youthful and acute eye to the proceedings. In her view, some of the most significant elements or scenes in the novel had been omitted – for example, the scene in which Rochester dresses up as a gipsy to foretell Jane’s future, where his teasing subterfuge attempts to draw her out into an admission of her feelings. Another key omission, this time a narrative one, was that of Jane’s inheritance from her uncle, which frees her from any future dependence of the kind that Rochester might have exerted. Certainly, it would have been difficult to include or explain the narrative ironies of this legacy in this fast-flowing drama. In the novel, there is a careful concatenation of events, starting with Aunt Reed’s summoning of Jane and revealing that her uncle has written to seek her in order to make her his heir, but has been told by Aunt Reed that Jane is dead. When Rochester heaps riches on Jane prior to their intended marriage, she is so uncomfortable that she writes to her uncle in the hope of bringing her own inheritance into the marriage. This letter, by extreme coincidence, alerts Richard Mason, Bertha’s brother, to Rochester’s intended marriage to Jane – and brings him to interrupt the marriage ceremony, leading Jane to flee. Only after she has sought her personal independence does that inheritance allow her to return to Rochester on an even footing. As the very length of these explanatory sentences shows, this is not the sort of complex information that can be conveyed theatrically; and even in the body of the novel, its intricacies may escape readers. However, the fact of the inheritance itself is crucial to Jane’s personal independence, the final step in her very own Life story. Only after that can she readily, happily announce, ‘Reader I married him’.

Any adaptation of Jane Eyre has to grapple with the representation of Bertha Mason. Here Bertha is graphically placed from the start both as alter ego and powerful counterpoint to the frail figure of Jane, reminding us always of that larger, more powerful other than Jane could become. All is well and good. But in this otherwise colour-blind production, Bertha is played by a black actor/singer Melanie Marshall (who also carries the musical/lyrical line alongside the play’s action – she it is who sings ‘Mad About the Boy’). Brontë leaves the ethnic origins of Bertha ambiguous, saying only that her mother was Creole, which can be used in a Caribbean context to indicate mixed race but can also indicate simply born of a European settler. And there is no suggestion of mixed race in her brother Richard. But in using a black actor, Bertha is depicted as the black side of Jane’s whiteness, endorsing the one great flaw in Brontë’s novel, where Bertha’s appetites are ‘othered’ while Jane’s are made acceptable by being contained. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to use a white actor to play Bertha, thus counteracting any possible implications of Bertha’s race being allied with her madness? Caught between two stools, the production is uncomfortable with the depiction of Bertha. Instead of rending Jane’s wedding veil in two and then stamping on it, she floats it about a bit, thus missing the visual drama of her pre-visioning and pre-empting Jane’s loss of virginity. Her attack on her brother Richard is toned down – in the novel she tears into his shoulder with her teeth, but not here. Conversely, Jane is shown uncompromisingly biting John Reed. But these are difficult waters. At least this production gives Bertha a powerful voice, providing the musical and lyrical line throughout the production. ‘Reader, I married him’ – words that Bertha had the right to speak as well as Jane; but in this theatrical devising of Brontë’s fiction, as well as in the novel itself, it is Jane who tells the tale.

A final footnote: I have to end with the tail wagging the dog. This stage production has quite the most brilliant depiction of a dog – Rochester’s Pilot – a human actor (Paul Mundell) could ever produce. Faithful, ever wagging, ever ready to be happy, optimistic, watchful for what his master might want, on the qui vive, flopped down exhausted but still on the qui vive, delightedly responding to being scratched and caressed – a dog extraordinaire. I suppose it’s not the best recommendation, but honestly, it’s worth going just to see the dog.