From Page to Stage: Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre

By Nancy Meakin

When I was in Year 12 studying Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, there was a National Theatre Live performance of a recent adaptation showing at the cinema. Of course, we were encouraged to go along, and I was happy to oblige. I was expecting the style to be akin to the realist acting schools of Stanislavsky, the set faithfully portraying the various settings of Gateshead, Lowood, and Thornfield, with detail that reflected the book’s focus on the interior life of a governess. However, Sally Cookson’s direction transformed this strikingly realist, psychologically intimate text into an exceptionally physical, metamorphic world that accentuated the intense spirit and inner life of its protagonist. 

Clearly, I was a fan. At this point, I had seen and enjoyed screen adaptations of 19th-century novels which all seemed bound to a realistic, faithful depiction of the period and the details that the authors carefully create for us. Yet, the freshness of this company’s interpretation of the text, not just in terms of how the text is performed, but in its dynamic, sensory, and visual storytelling, exhilarated me. Director Sally Cookson describes this process of devising as ‘finding a physical and verbal language as a company’, which I think added to the magical creativity of this production.  

Jane Eyre is hard to adapt for stage, considering its length, number of internal psychological experiences, and the subtleties of interactions that might be caught best on camera with lingering closeups. Yet, the way this production deals with the Bildungsroman story is precisely through leaning into its transitory nature. Intimate scenes exploring some of Jane’s key relationships with Helen or Rochester are marked out by their stillness and intimacy compared to the dynamic transitions, utilising music, physical theatre, and motifs, which bookend them. 

Movement director Dan Canham said that these moments ‘gives space to the story’ and ‘allows it to breathe a little bit’. This gliding nature of the performance, never sitting still in any place for long, yet grounded through Jane’s presence, mimics the way the narrator leads us through her memories in the book. Canham said that this was key as he ‘wanted to show a journey from place to place and a kind of inner state of Jane at a particular time’. It has the effect of memory; even though in this production we do not get a sense of it being told retrospectively, the fact we linger on certain scenes and the more fluid landscape of the world makes it appear to us as if we were remembering the tale too. 

The set was remarkably plain – a sort of climbing frame apparatus, minus the slides. This created a playground which the imagination of the actors could play with. The set could morph into various locations through the characters’ response to it, linking Jane’s emotional experience to the setting instantly. 

The set could morph into various locations through the characters’ response to it

Music also played a significant role in adding to the emotional intensity of the experience. They had a live band and singer who moved around on stage, often colouring the mood before the dialogue even began. It was used the most powerfully when it was able to tell a big moment in the story through music alone (spoiler coming up!). In one of the most powerful moments in the play, the female singer sang a slowed down, acoustic version of CeeLo Green’s ‘Crazy’, after Thornfield had burned down. At this moment, I had the revelation (that admittedly my friends had realised well before I had) that the singer had been Bertha’s haunting presence all along. She moved invisibly around the characters, yet still had a strong influence over the events on stage. This gave the character a power and a permanence that she is not permitted to have in the book, which I thought was a brilliant take on the theme of the madwoman in the attic. 

When I think of Jane Eyre, I still have the initial memory of the story when I first read the book. However, my reading is now tinged with various interpretations from within the play. In fact, when I picture the energy and the imaginative landscape of the novel, I picture this play. This shows how performance can adapt not just a narrative story, but the feelings and ideas that exist underneath the text, drawing them out for the audience to experience directly. It extends the conversation of the text from being a personal one between reader and author to a larger, more multifaceted one. This, I think, is the power of adaptation. I hope that more directors embrace a less conservative approach to 19th-century novels in the future and adopt some of the abstract, experimental, and symbolic methods that this production used to reach a more emotional, multi-layered, and meaningful performance. 

Photo: National Theatre

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.