There is a clear trend of late in adapting texts, particularly canonical literature, for the stage. At times this tendency seems to be hoping to rather lazily attract an audience familiar with the characters. Rendering Pride and Prejudice for the stage for example, simply smacks of playing to an already receptive audience, rather than a genuine attempt at investing a piece with a new creative and critical reading.
Sally Cookson’s Jane Eyre, however, is an inventive, skilful adaptation that not only feels vital, but necessary. Performed at the Wales Millennium Centre following an acclaimed season at the National Theatre, the adaptation was devised as part of a collaboration between the National Theatre and the Bristol Old Vic. These credentials feel immediately apparent both through the quality of the cast, and the imaginative staging. Jane Eyre is not an attempt to pander to the masses and simply capitalise on familiarity; rather, Cookson has intentionally sought to highlight the feminist aspects of both Jane’s character, and the nature of her relationship with Rochester.
Notably, the play’s narrative was conceived through rehearsals, in which the actors, with no script, began to develop and cement the structure and nature of the play. This form of devising is, seemingly, crucial in adapting such a text. A text that comes with pre-conceived, often static, interpretations can feel restrictive. For many self-proclaimed fans of such a text, any adaptation is lacking when it detours from the source material, and as such, adaptations are often, in striving for fidelity, staid. Cookson’s adaptation, while retaining the central narrative, along with a number of lines directly from Brontë’s writing, makes no attempt to pander to such outdated ideas of fidelity. Rather, the play feels fresh, making Jane’s plight feel immediate and relatable.
This relatability is further aided by Nadia Clifford’s central performance as Jane. Tasked with the difficult job of depicting a character from childhood to adulthood, Clifford, in altering her movement and vocal range, does so convincingly. Her Jane is enigmatic and compelling. Her pains and desires are, through the inventive use of cast members acting as her onstage consciousness, acutely felt by the audience. The use of this consciousness successfully overcomes the challenges that are so often faced by texts that feature a first person narrative. Jane’s frustrations are made apparent throughout, and in turn, the audience is able to connect with her.
Similarly inventive is the performance of Bertha Mason, Rochester’s much maligned wife. Bertha, so synonymous with the concept of the crazed, wronged woman, is not only made more human, but rather progressively, is never shown as archetypically mad. Too often adaptations of Jane Eyre have sought to depict Bertha as unhinged, and violent, but when Jane does finally meet Bertha, she is quiet, silent, and pitiable. Melanie Marshall performing the dual role of Bertha and onstage vocalist, is almost always onstage, indicating that Bertha’s presence, while not always recognised by the characters, is always there, threatening to upset the narrative trajectory.
The staging, featuring a static central wooden raised platform, allows for freedom of movement. Characters run up and down the various ladders leaning against the platform, in perfectly synchronised choreography, interchanging roles and scenes. Lighting is successfully used to indicate the change of time and setting as we follow Jane from the infamous red room (made oppressive through the hyperbolic darkened, red lighting) to Lowood School and Thornfield Hall.
The music, largely provided by onstage musicians, is inventive, ranging from the stirringly atmospheric, to the Jazz inspired, to finally, a rendition of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’, which may present as jarring initially, but is entirely suited to the mood of the chosen scene.
A wonderful, affecting adaptation, Cookson’s Jane Eyre creates moments of real beauty, infusing its source text with revived vivacity and immediacy. Almost cinematic in its quieter moments, Cookson’s adaptation should be the litmus test for subsequent renditions of canonical texts. Jane Eyre will please both affirmed fans, and those new to the narrative.