Theatre: Jane Eyre - but not by the book

Nadia Clifford, the star of Jane Eyre at Sheffield Lyceum, in Haworth where the Bronte family lived
Nadia Clifford, the star of Jane Eyre at Sheffield Lyceum, in Haworth where the Bronte family lived

The National Theatre bring their bold and dynamic stage version of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre to the Lyceum stage next week.

Director Sally Cookson’s innovative re-imagining of the great novel telling the story of one woman’s fight for freedom and fulfilment on her own terms is performed by seven actors and three musicians.

Sally Cookson in rehearsals for the National Theatre tour of Jane Eyre
photo by Ellie Kurttz

Sally Cookson in rehearsals for the National Theatre tour of Jane Eyre photo by Ellie Kurttz

It was originally presented in two parts at Bristol Old Vic and then adapted into a single exhilarating performance for the National Theatre and is now touring with a new cast. 

“This is our drilled down one-stop version,” explains Cookson. “It’s the most intense hit but it still has an epic nature, it’s three hours and puts everything into it.”

She admits that adapting a novel cited as many people’s favourite of all time is daunting but their job has been essentially to create a different experience from reading a book.

From her beginnings as a destitute orphan, Brontë’s spirited heroine faces life’s obstacles head-on, surviving poverty, injustice and the discovery of bitter betrayal before taking the ultimate decision to follow her heart.

I didn’t want the aesthetics of a Victorian history piece

And that, of course, is with the dark and moody Mr Rochester although right from the start it was decided to emphasise the coming-of-age aspects of the novel rather than the romance.

“The relationship with Rochester is very important, it’s the meat of the story,” concedes the director. “But people think of Jane Eyre as a love story. The subtitle of the book is Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. That was a big clue as to what the book was about. I think it is a coming of age story. We don’t meet Rochester until a quarter of the way through the book.

“The childhood and adolescence are crucial in order to understand where she is coming from and her experience. Without all those experiences you wouldn’t get an insight into who she is.”

It is very much an ensemble piece with all the actors – except Nadia Clifford as Jane - playing more than one part and along with the musicians onstage most of the time.

Sally Cookson in rehearsals for the National Theatre tour of Jane Eyre
photo by Ellie Kurttz

Sally Cookson in rehearsals for the National Theatre tour of Jane Eyre photo by Ellie Kurttz

“Music is vitally important,” explains Cookson. “One of the things I wanted to do was find a way of telling this extraordinary story and getting it from the page on to the stage. As a theatremaker I like to use different elements not just the spoken word. In order to get inside Jane’s head and find that extraordinary and peculiar mind and imagination and strong will and determination it needs to be explored in a theatrical way, not just hearing what she is thinking through text. We worked very hard on allowing music and movement to tell the story with the result it becomes very visual.”

Composer Benji Bower was in the rehearsal room as the piece was devised making it very much an organic process.

“One of the things I was desperate not to do was a beautiful costumed period piece and although it remains very much in the mid 19th century I didn’t want the aesthetics of a Victorian history piece. And the music should not be placed in the past. The influences are folk tradition but also film music, jazz and pop. Among the few songs are Noel Coward’s Mad About the Boy, Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy and an Elvis number, Jesus Loves Me. It’s eclectic and very modern and helps to bring the story to a contemporary place and allows it to appear like a fresh news story.

The band are in the centre of the set which is a wooden structure made up of platforms, ramps and ladders.

“It has a minimalist simplicity but provides the actors with a playground on which to perform and illustrate the physical and emotional struggle Jane encounters as she develops from a child into an independent woman.”

Cookson is pleased that the National are taking it on tour. “Jane Eyre was written in Yorkshire and it would be ridiculous for it just to be seen in London and not to be played where the story came from. It’s fantastic playing it up here and in front of people who know Yorkshire and have a sense of ownership for Charlotte Bronte’s work. “

The freelance director is an associate artist of Bristol Old Vic whose productions include Treasure Island and Peter Pan which also transferred to the National Theatre and her adaptation of Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather came on tour to the Crucible Sheffield. Another production by Sally Cookson coming to Sheffield, to the Lyceum next month, is very different animal, a musical based on the Fellini movie La Strada. After that she will create a new version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at the West Yorkshire Playhouse this Christmas.

Jane Eyre is at the Lyceum from Tuesday to Saturday.