It was bold to put Jane Eyre on the stage. It’s long and complex and an extremely well known story, making it hard to surprise. But for me the Bristol Old Vic production that we saw at the National Theatre last night succeeded. Chicken enjoyed it too but was less sure of its success. Why did I think it succeeded?
Firstly, it is a great story, one that can be told again and again. Even though I know it well I’d forgotten some of the twists and turns. I liked that after so much pain, suffering, and separation it had a happy ending. “Reader, I married him.”
Secondly, the company told the story in a different way from usual, making it less of a love story and more of a life story. Consequently there was more emphasis on Jane’s early years. The company brought out strongly Jane’s concern with justice, fairness, and what we now call human rights. Sally Cookson, the director, writes in the programme that after seeing Orson Welles’s film she thought it a love story of a passive girl falling in love with a strong man but when she read the book was “struck by how modern Jane seemed—her spirit and strong will, her peculiar and brilliant mind striving for personal freedom to be who she is, lashing out against any constraint that stops her from being herself. She was exactly the sort of person I wanted to be.”
Thirdly, the play—mainly through the programme, I must confess—brought home to me how closely the story was constructed form Charlotte Bronte’s story. She too fell in love with a complex, unpredictable man, a teacher in Belgium. He was married, and their love affair faded when Charlotte returned to the UK and a life of one death after another. In Jane Eyre, her biographers argue, she achieved the consummation she never achieved in life. I’ve read Villette, the novel in which Charlotte tells more directly her Belgian story, and it’s not nearly as strong as Jane Eyre. Perhaps you can tell a life story only once with conviction.
Fourthly and crucially, I like the theatricality—the music, set, acting, flames, dramatic moments, and humour. Craig Edwards, actor who played Rochester’s dog, was masterful, making everybody laugh but also evoking the love that many of us feel for dogs. The actress who played Jane, Madeleine Worrall, was on stage from the beginning to the end, beginning literally as a baby. I thought that she did well, bringing out the toughness and resilience of Jane, but Chicken found her particularly unconvincing as a child. I liked that it was a small company with one actress, Laura Elphinstone, convincingly inhabiting five parts, one of them a man.
The play proved for me what a great work Jane Eyre is in that you can do almost anything with it successfully—as you can with most of Shakespeare’s plays. It’s a great book, has made great films, and now is a strong, if not great, play.