Pops suggested this stage production of Jane Eyre to me, and I confess that I was at first hesitant. Jane Eyre is not among my favorite novels. Perhaps in juxtaposition to Wuthering Heights, I at some point developed some rather negative feelings about it. (Recall my discussion with Erin Blakemore, here.) But it was an intriguing concept, this adaptation to the stage; and I have been nothing but impressed with past National Theatre Live performances (Treasure Island; A View From the Bridge). So we went.
The Lincoln Theatre in Mount Vernon (a town about 30 minutes south of where I live now) is always a treat, and we found a tiny hole-in-the-wall Thai place beforehand that was worthwhile, too. And I had rearranged my mindset by the time we got there. It has been years since I read Jane Eyre. And I love the stage. This will be great, I thought. Of course it was!
As we have seen at past NT Live shows, the set design was innovative and well done: so extraordinarily simple, just a few platforms and levels of planking, with lots of stairs and ladders throughout, so that the players create the impression of distance covered by sort of doing laps. And because there was no decor, any space could be anyplace at all. Same with the actors: I believe it was a crew of about six who played every character in the story, by simple costume changes and adjustments in accent and attitude; we never had trouble following along. Another less-is-more approach, which is always a clear winner with me. I think I’m done with elaborate costuming and set design. (She says, until the next beautifully elaborate production comes along.)
I was taken with the way they put together this adaptation, too. The company did it cooperatively, through improvisation: they all read the book, got up and freestyled. There’s a great clip, Devising Jane Eyre – and you get a glimpse of some of the actors there. (Then check out the trailer.) It’s a stripped-down version this way, purified if you will. This is not the Jane Eyre I remember. I remember Jane Eyre being a rational, thinking woman’s novel, almost austere, where Wuthering Heights was all passion; but this play was steeped in passion, as well as that groundbreaking feminist thought that we recall Jane for. She still makes (the same) choices of self-deprivation, but they are made with passion. I loved this woman. This company made of Bronte’s work something different – and, for me, better. (I can hear the novel’s fans gasping. They’re just personal reactions, folks.)
The acting was magnificent, and I will say that this version of Rochester was a heartthrob (also something I do not recall from the novel). But all the acting was magnificent. The woman who played Jane’s friend from boarding school, and later played the pastor Rivers who proposes, was perfect in every role; and the woman who played Jane’s mother, then the maid, then Rochester’s girlfriend, was stunning. Even Rochester’s dog, Pilot, is a joy to watch, played by a man (great fun). The communication of Jane’s inner thoughts – always a problem in adapting books to screenplays or stage plays – is solved with pure genius: a group of (I think) 4 actors gather round her, all talking at once, like a Greek chorus inside her head. She dialogues with them. Pops and I were both mesmerized by this inventive and entertaining solution.
Another unique angle we observed was gender- and race-bending (if you will). There were two black actors who fit right into the story without comment or need for explanation; we both liked that introduction, a modernization if you will, since historically Jane Eyre’s mother was decidedly not black; but we were happy to see it fit right in. And during Jane’s stay as a student at Lowood Institution, a boarding school for girls, all the same actors played her classmates – including two men, one of them bearded. But we understood: in this scene, these are all little girls. I think we were both tickled by these new angles, and happy to play along.
The cues used to switch us from Jane as newborn baby, to Jane as young girl, to teacher, to governess, to bride, etc. were simple but effective. She never left the stage, I don’t think, in the whole performance; she made tiny costume changes onstage, not hidden but as part of the action. Her Greek chorus helped her changed into her wedding dress and then back again into the costume of her lower social standing, and this was a symbolic and important part of the story. I liked this new way of signalling changes in time, place and action. Again, minimalist but effective.
The stark simplicity of stage and costuming, and even in the number of actors involved, and the distillation of the novel to its most powerful, moving, and passionate elements, was supremely successful. I regret my hesitation: I will see anything produced by National Theatre Live. And on that note, let me point out that all those fine folks in the Bristol audience paid a lot more money than I did to see this play in person; but I got close-up shots and all the right angles. The invisible element to the National Theatre Live format is cinematography. They claim, and it is true, that each of us at the Lincoln Theatre in Mount Vernon, Washington had the best seat in the house. What a deal.
And now the question of whether to reread. When I try a beer again after years, that I used to love, and I no longer like it: have my tastes changed, or my very taste buds; or have they changed the recipe on the beer? When your professionally-fit bicycle no longer feels right, has the bike changed? No, your body has aged. I wonder if I would appreciate the novel more today because of my age, maturity, life experience then I did when I was… I think I read this as a teen and again in my early twenties. Or is it just this production that worked so well for me? What do you think?
Not in question is my rating of this theatre experience. Go find yourself some NT Live: it’s worth it.