What made you want to stage Jane Eyre in the first place – what is its power, and what made you start to envision it on stage?
The starting point for this production was Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre. There are several play adaptations out there already, but I was keen to make a new version and discover, with the company, what gives the book its enduring power – what has kept it on the best sellers list for the last one hundred and seventy years. I find it thrilling to excavate a text with a company of creative theatre makers because the possibilities of what you discover are extraordinary. At the beginning of the process, even before we went into rehearsals, I spent time investigating which elements of the story I wanted to emphasise. Jane Eyre has become known as a passionate love story, which indeed it is, but that is only part of it.
The voice of Jane Eyre speaks of passion, lower caste aspiration and female rage – it is a story of a young girl’s longing for fulfilment, and fulfilment on her own terms – a concept very much at odds with the dictates and confines of the Victorian society of her day. It was the first novel to give voice to the rising frustration and sense of injustice felt by women trapped in a patriarchal environment. For me, what makes the novel so great is the weight placed on individual human rights. Jane has a fundamental understanding of what she needs in order to thrive as a human being – unless she is nourished, not just physically but intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, life is wasted. Jane’s spirit and strong will, her peculiar and brilliant mind, her strive for personal freedom to be who she is – and she lashes out against any constraint that prevents her from being herself. I think of the book as a coming of age story, a life story as opposed to just a love story.
How would you describe this adaptation of Jane Eyre? It’s not a straight-up page-to-stage adaptation – why did you decide to devise this show with the company?
Rather than approach the novel as a piece of costume drama romance, I was keen to explore the themes and get to the heart of the story and characters in a theatrical way – and make it resonate with a modern audience. I didn’t want loads of authentic set and costume stuff to suffocate the story, so that it became a dinosaur of a piece, killing the essence and magic of the story. Michael Vale’s wonderful playground of a set and Katie Syke’s magnificent costumes suggest the period setting rather than imposing it, they allow the actors freedom to climb, run and hang off the set.
We are making bold creative choices in order that our version of Jane Eyre is as Wild, Wonderful and Thrilling as it can be, and in order to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. It is always daunting when youʼre working on a story which everyone knows so well, because you want to surprise and maybe challenge their expectations, without losing any of the things which make them like the story in the first place.
Music plays a huge part in this production, and Benji Bower fans won’t be disappointed. Live music is intricately woven into the story including traditional ballad singing as well as Minimalism, Jazz and Choral singing, to create a stunning score. It certainly makes our version of the story non traditional. The band is at the centre of the action, I’ve deliberately placed them right in the middle of the set.
The original run at Bristol Old Vic in 2014 divided the show into two parts… tell us about the decision to tell the whole story in one performance this time around. What are the gains and what are the losses here?
Our job with the transfer to the National Theatre was to amalgamate the two parts into one, which has been challenging. The trickiest aspect of this process has been to ensure we have a satisfying story arc. We quickly discovered that if we just cut bits and squidged it all together it felt wrong. We had to very carefully change the entire structure. It felt a bit like dismantling a car, laying out all the pieces on the floor and then putting them back together in a different order and hoping that the engine would start! We’ve cut over thirty minutes of material from its original form, which allows the evening to feel more intense.
Sally was originally in conversation with Shipshape Magazine