IT MAY have been written in the 1840s, but Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre covers issues and themes that are every bit as relevant today as they were at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign.
So says director Sally Cookson, who has adapted the novel for the stage.
“Firstly, it is a superb story – a real page turner, with a protagonist who you root for from the start,” she enthuses. “Secondly, despite the fact that it was written over 160 years ago it deals with all the things we still find ourselves struggling with – ‘where do I fit in, who am I’?
“The intensity of the novel’s search for identity is something we’ve all experienced. Surrounding the heroine are characters grappling with their own individual identity crises. I don’t think there’s one character who is not struggling in some way to come to terms with their circumstances and wrestling with the very idea of what it is to be human.
“Whether it’s Rochester or Helen Burns, Mrs Reed or Blanche Ingram, St John Rivers or Bertha Mason – all these characters are flailing around in an attempt to discover who they are. In the middle is Jane, taking responsibility for her life and always taking action to change her circumstances when her integrity is threatened.”
Jane Eyre tells the story of one woman’s fight for freedom and fulfilment. From her beginnings as a destitute orphan, the feisty 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.
“Re-reading the book now, I’m struck by the weight the novel places on individual human rights,” says Sally, an associate artist of Bristol Old Vic. “Jane understands from a very early age that in order to thrive she needs to be nourished – not just physically but emotionally, spiritually and intellectually.
“These basic human needs are central to our wellbeing and Jane has a fundamental understanding of this. Like any fine piece of writing, Jane Eyre is multi-faceted and, whoever you are and whatever your age, each reader will gain something slightly different from it.”
The book is still a big seller and Sally says she felt a huge responsibility in reimagining it for the stage.
“Adapting a novel for the stage is a challenging prospect – especially when that novel is cited as many people’s favourite of all time,” she explains. “It’s always daunting when you’re working on a story which everyone knows so well, because you want to surprise and maybe challenge people’s expectations, without losing any of the things which make them like the story in the first place.
“Our job has been to turn it from a book into a piece of theatre. Essentially that means creating something new – the experience of reading a book is very different to watching a play.
“Rather than approach the novel as a piece of costume drama, I was keen to explore the themes and get to the heart of the story and characters in a theatrical way. I didn’t want authentic set and period costume to suffocate it.”
The new production is performed by seven actors and three musicians. Apart from Nadia Clifford who plays Jane, the actors play more than one part and are onstage most of the time. The set is wooden made up of platforms, ramps and ladders – far from a literal interpretation of the Victorian period.
“It’s minimalist but provides the actors with a playground on which to perform,” says Sally. “The band are placed in the middle – I wanted the music to be central as it’s intrinsic to the production. Benji Bower, the composer, uses folk, Jazz, sacred, orchestral and pop to create the world Jane inhabits.”
She describes the latest production as “really exciting”, adding: “I certainly never expected it to have the life that it’s had. Bristol Old Vic took an enormous risk when they originally agreed to produce it, and all I thought about when we first started working on it was ‘hold your nerve – keep going’…”
Jane Eyre will be at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking, from Monday 29 May until Saturday 3 June.