Jane Eyre: a sneak peek into the rehearsal room

Stephanie Kempson, Bristol Old Vic’s newly fledged Assistant Director for Jane Eyre and first recipient of the JMK Assistant Director Bursary, has been devising enchanting things in the far reaches of our rehearsal rooms for the past two weeks. From delving deep into the text itself to creating vibrant storyboards to freely improvising scenes, its safe to say the creative team are attacking this timeless classic from every angle in their process of adaptation. Here’s Steph with a sneak peek into what’s been happening…

We’re now almost two weeks into devising Bristol Old Vic’s Jane Eyre, the first ever two part production of Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel. Until Christmas we’re creating show number one, which covers Jane’s childhood at Gateshead, her education at the brutal Lowood school and her move to Thornfield. We’re nearing the interval this week and tackling some of the bigger set pieces: Helen Burns’ death (Jane’s school friend); revisiting the Red Room and the brutal Lowood regime. Topics of research this week have included the differences between tuberculosis and typhus. It’s been physical, cerebral and we’ve alternated from returning to the text to throwing it aside and improvising a theatrical translation.

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For some of the creative team this production has been three years in the making, but some of us have joined the process much more recently. It’s an exciting and scary thing to devise from a well-loved text, particularly one that many people are coerced into reading at school. There tends to be a violent reaction either way. Some dislike it claiming they hate its wordiness or the romance element. Others love it, finding within it a kind of heady gloriousness, a wonderful example of someone asserting themselves, and a journey which takes you from the heights of ecstasy to depths of depression. Whatever the adaptations, the film posters, the book covers and everything else might suggest, Jane Eyre is a complex, rich, intelligent book telling the story of a life.

Sally Cookson (the director) made the decision to create this show in two parts, in order to really commit to telling the story of Jane Eyre. Our version will avoid shortening Jane’s childhood and the formation of her character through her education, her early years with her cruel cousins and aunt, and her strong decisions to seek employment. We’ve already made a few bold choices: which characters are kept and which aren’t; how events need to happen in our version; and what’s important and what’s not.

Our rehearsal room is full of horse tack, platforms and ladders, a grand piano (or rather a Clavinova with a large piece of cardboard attached for now) and a rail of odd garments. The walls are covered in John Martin’s paintings, Paula Rego’s images, William Blake’s drawings, old maps of England and Charlotte Bronte’s face staring down at us. It’s all there to help the whole company create a theatrical version of the book, which will really represent the rich tapestry of Bronte’s text.

My favourite moments of the week have been setting the routine at Lowood school to music, or creating a breakneck carriage journey from Gateshead to Lowood for young Jane. Tomorrow we’re going to thread together all the pieces so far and run the first half of the first show. We’d better get cracking.

Here’s a musical snippet fresh from the Jane Eyre rehearsal rooms with Benji Bower, Will Bower and Phil King!


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