Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë, dir. Sally Cookson; The Lowry, April 12 2017.
Ah how audacious, the audience clucked in the interval. So intelligent, so rousing. Such fine performances. Such an ambitious set. And oh how we loved the songs. And Jane herself. The whole – so lavish, so sumptuous, such a modern, innovative reworking of the classic novel.
What was this wonder, this marvel, so entrancing the many at the Lowry on 12 April? An adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, no less, 170 years old this year and, as the crowds indicate, as much of a draw today as it was then. Let us talk about what the crowds appeared to like first, shall we? First, the set: imagine a climbing frame handcrafted by gilded craftsmen within a walled community for the richest children in the land, providing the company with many levels from which to work. Then add a trio of musicians who could easily be Mumford and Sons with their white shirts and waistcoats, providing busy incidental backing and the occasional song (in the style of The Decemberists).
Then, let us talk of Jane: Nadia Clifford is on stage for the entirety of the play’s length and she is tremendous, showing us Jane as a child and Jane as a woman with only a change of clothes to help her. If director Sally Cookson’s production has a heart, it is Clifford. But let us not tarry on Jane. Nay. Let us talk about money, for this is a play that drips money from the rafters, with shirts that descend from the ceiling and windows that descend from the ceiling and red lights that transform the entire stage into blood at a moment’s notice (and just for a moment, mind). This feels like an adaptation that has not had to scrimp. This feels like an adaptation where the company had money to spare and wracked their very souls as to how to get it spent.
And that – that engine of complicity, the company sitting together, interrogating the book, transposing details, transforming the written word into theatrical action – spills over into the whole. The company take liberties with the novel, to be sure, with Mr Rochester dropping an F bomb when he falls from his horse (despite the lack of an actual horse, actor Tim Delap hanging from the wooden climbing frame set and pretending to gallop like a demon through a hellfire rain), Melanie Marshall belting out versions of Dinah Washington’s Mad about the Boy and Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy to hammer home certain resonant parts of the book, Paul Mundell bounding about the set in the character of Rochester’s dog Pilot…there are times when these devices seem devised merely to show off an idea someone had. By the interval it was clear that a great many people liked what they were seeing. But we were not among them.
Perhaps we need to use the words of Charlotte Brontë to address the problems we had with the production, though:
Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilised by education: they grow there, firm as weeds among stones.
The theatre is often a place that requires actors to represent rather than directly show. For example, at word of a birth, an actor may say, ‘it’s a girl’, and find their words repeated by every actor on the stage to suggest that word of the birth has got about. Sometimes men will be called upon to fight but rather than really fight, actors may say the word SLAP loudly to intimate that contact has been made. Stagecoaches cannot roar along a country road as they could in a film adaptation and so actors may jog ferociously on the spot as a band play travelling music and stops on the journey are called out. Most plays incorporate a level of representation. You imagine a company working together, questioning their source material, wondering aloud how they show certain things – immensely pleased when they chance across a way to get their point across. Jane Eyre is awash in such sequences. This, in part, arises from the fact that this isn’t a play to begin with, it’s a novel. You have to make certain leaps to translate a novel into a play. Intellectually we can appreciate this. But as an experience…well, the play is just tremendously irritating.
Gentle reader, may you never feel what I then felt! May your eyes never shed such stormy, scalding, heart-wrung tears as poured from mine. May you never appeal to Heaven in prayers so hopeless and so agonised as in that hour left my lips…
Imagine then watching a play you find intensely irritating in the company of a great many fellow travellers (1,730 if Google is right) all of whom appear to be enjoying themselves immensely.
There is no happiness like that of being loved by your fellow creatures, and feeling that your presence is an addition to their comfort.
To feel the opposite, to sit apart, to find every intuitive leap ugly and repellent, to be able to admire in isolation ingredients (Clifford as Eyre, Delap as Rochester, Marshall as Bertha Mason) and yet to find the whole pretentious, to sit glancing at your watch (amazed at the trickle with which time passes)…such was the time we had. We felt sorry. We felt bored. We felt angry at ourselves. Disappointed. We turned our scathing glance inwards and outwards and inwards and outwards. Our brains boiled. And then Jane herself spoke:
I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.
Yes, we told ourselves. It’s ok. We didn’t like it even though everyone else appeared to greatly. That is ok. No net ensnares us. We can dislike what others like. It is ok. It may be that a certain kind of theatregoer likes this kind of experience, is charmed and amused by acts of representation; for us, those elements are alienating. When a play is awash in representation, is but a jumble of sequences in which bright young actors attempt to show us how they have brilliantly realised scenes from a well loved novel, performing like an ensemble of Cheshire Cats amidst an orgy of cream…it’s off-putting, to say the least. Were this play an eligible bachelor – reader, we would not marry it.