This innovative and accessible production, directed by Adrian McDougall, combines intricate symbolism with interpretation of Brontë’s novel, while the clear narration removes the potential obscurity of Jane Eyre’s interiority. Indeed, Nick Lane’s script presents the audience with an almost unrecognisably chatty Jane, and the sad heaviness of her character in the novel seems mostly absent from the play. Consequently, certain parts of the dialogue – especially those which are explicitly modernised versions of passages from the novel – come across differently, such as Jane’s admission to her guardian Mrs Reed that she would be a liar if she said she loved her. I remembered this speech as reproachful and regretful rather than (as this production interprets it) as a loud, angered outburst from Jane. But the latter, for a ten year old child at least, seems to be more relatable for a modern audience, and the modernised relationship between Helen and Jane at Lowood – who are framed as giggly, lively friends, with a ‘HELLO’ scrawled on a chalkboard, like a text message – is heartwarming.
The autobiographical framework of the play, with Jane (Kelsey Short) regularly turning to address the audience, also makes Jane’s feelings for Rochester into an intense infatuation that one might associate with adolescence, at odds with her calm and measured responses in the direct dialogue between the pair. However, Jane is a teenager in the novel, and it was refreshing to see a production of Jane Eyre that did not see these two frames of mind – the one serious and contemplative, the other excited with a crush – as incompatible. This paradigm was most effective when drawing out Jane’s criticism of Blanche Ingram (Eleanor Toms): her sentiment that Blanche ‘didn’t have the wit to charm him’, said in a congenial voice while Blanche obliviously played piano for Rochester beside her, was very humorous, and the addition of Jane’s comment that Blanche follows Rochester like ‘a dewy-eyed limpet’ got a huge laugh!
Though I enjoyed the light-hearted nature of the production, it was at its best when portraying the intimate dialogue between Jane and Rochester. The outward-facing autobiographical narration faded; Rochester (Ben Warwick) appeared somehow both hot-tempered and soft and kind, and Jane was thoughtful and honest. It was in these scenes that some of the most interesting adaptations of Brontë’s words occurred, and these were given room to breathe with the quietness of these scenes.
For instance, Jane admits to the audience ‘my feelings were both cruel and beautiful’; Rochester draws on the parallels between Jane and Bertha when he says Bertha Mason is all alone in the world, like his daughter Adele and like Jane, answering to her criticism of Bertha’s (supposed) fire-starting; and, on Jane’s return to Thornfield after visiting her dying aunt, Rochester says ‘You haven’t missed a wedding […] I couldn’t marry without you’, a poignant yet wry and gently comedic way of interpreting this scene where Jane believes Rochester is engaged to Blanche. At the close of the play, when Jane and Rochester are reunited in the ruins of Thornfield, the line that communicates Jane’s return to Rochester is ‘There’s no water, sir; none that quenches thirst’, and when he asks ‘How can you bear it?’, Jane responds, ‘Beauty is of little consequence, sir’; these lines echo their first conversation at Thornfield when Jane says he is not handsome, but that she ought to have said ‘beauty is of little consequence’, adding a poetic circularity to the story.
These adaptations go well with the stagecraft, which applies a powerful interpretative force to Brontë’s original. With minimal props and scenery, each aesthetic decision acquires great significance. John Reed pokes out from behind a backlit white sheet to torment Jane while she is reading, and from then on throughout the play the white sheet and white material generally is present onstage as a symbol of ongoing suffering and the regressive behaviour now understood to be a result of childhood trauma. John, Georgiana and Mrs Reed sneer behind the white sheets lit red in the Red Room scene: the demons Jane fears are psychologically attributed to these bullying powers who oppress her; the white sheets ensconce Helen in the centre of the stage during her last conversation with Jane, showing that Helen’s death is likewise an important and distressing childhood event. Interestingly, in this scene, Brontë’s more moderate ‘Does it exist?’ as Jane wonders about Helen’s afterlife becomes ‘What if there’s nothing?’, an adaptation that invites us to wonder if this question has arisen because of Jane’s disillusionment with Mrs Reed and Brocklehurst’s bizarre perceptions of truth and virtue. The white sheet becomes Jane’s wedding veil, which Bertha tries to take from her at night and which she clutches during her conversation with Rochester before fleeing Thornfield, the translation of trauma into adulthood. Bertha’s own traumatic relationship with Rochester is only briefly explored in the dialogue, as in the novel, but staged with rich symbolism— Bertha’s white nightgown resembles both the wedding dress and the homely, childish domesticity of Adele’s nightdress which she wears in the previous scene.
This production interprets Bertha’s madness as regressive: her tug-of-war with Jane and her veil, her quiet and unthreatening attempt to claw at Jane, and then her childish simpering at Rochester seem to take the rage and sexuality out of Brontë’s Bertha and turn her into a child. She clutches a doll on the floor while Rochester tells her story, powerful staging that makes Bertha’s lack of agency impossible to ignore. Rochester walks offstage holding both Jane’s white veil and Bertha’s black one, their connectedness symbolic of how he has influenced the trauma of two women he has loved.
Bertha’s portrayal is consistent with the production’s overall concern with childhood. The adult actor plays both versions of Jane aged ten and nineteen, depicting the attentiveness to childhood experiences and perceptions that the book argues for, and also showing the omnipresence of traumatic events: time cannot be an effective distancer from the fact that these things happened to the same self, child or adult. This is apparent in Jane’s dialogue with St John, more explicit than in the novel, when she tells him that if he had been safe in his own vulnerability then he would understand love, concluding ‘I see the love before the sin’. Jane resists the intellectualising of love that St John’s religious sensibility inspires, and instead tells him of the importance of one’s emotional learning experiences, of safety. This also poignantly suggests that Jane has felt safe in her vulnerability with Rochester, which the more light-hearted parts of the play attest to, as she is able to communicate about her feelings through humour, and the audience feels safe to laugh. The mashed-up beams and staircases, present throughout the play, make sense only in the last scene, when it becomes obvious they are Thornfield’s ruins, suggesting Jane finds solace in the perceived circularity of her journey from child to adult, making peace with Rochester’s own troubled past and her own difficult passage through life. It demonstrates a wonderful sensitivity to have Jane look around at this metonym of her experience and declare ‘It’s not a ruin.’
My personal favourite part of this production, joining together its thoughtful attention to Bronte’s novel and its innovatively humorous approach, was when Blanche, faithful to the novel, declares governesses all ‘incubi’; Jane, from the shadows, corrects her to ‘succubi’, the female version of these supernatural creatures, making Blanche’s potentially vague reference to parasitic beings explicitly sexual— and accurate, in fact, as Jane has a crush on and will eventually marry Rochester— while pretending that it was Blanche who initially meant it and made a mistake, thereby communicating Blanche’s intellectual shortcomings. It didn’t get a laugh from the audience, but it was a great Easter egg for longtime fans of the novel!
Hope Doherty watched Blackeyed Theatre’s show at Gala Durham. Blackeyed’s production of Jane Eyre runs to 19th May 2020. It returns to the North East in Middlesbrough on May 6th to 7th 2020.