National Theatre (UK) Production: Jane Eyre

In June 2017, I was fortunate enough to take an extended trip to the United Kingdom. By happy chance, I was able to attend a performance of Jane Eyre by the Royal National Theatre.

As I usually do before seeing a movie or a play, I refrained from reading reviews, so that I wouldn't know what to expect. What I saw in Canterbury's Old Marlowe Theatre was unexpected indeed. Here are my reflections on it.

Is peculiar good? I'm admittedly a traditionalist. A few liberties taken with a story are fine, but I prefer it to proceed in a sensible, recognizable way.

This production was (purposely) far from a simple re-creation of Charlotte Brontë's vision. From the set to the acting to various bits of artistic license in the plot, all aspects of the play reflected consciously "different" choices.

The entire production took place using one set of scenery, which was barely scenery at all: a central raised platform, accessible via a series of ladders and ramps, along with (if I recall correctly) a chair or two. The actors moved between the main stage floor and the platform, scurrying up and down ladders and strolling along ramps.

The cast was small — about eight actors in all, most of whom played multiple roles. No actor seemed ineligible for any part; St. John Rivers was portrayed by a woman, while a couple of Lowood students (who were supposed to be young girls) sported bushy beards.

A small Greek chorus, comprised of four other actors, sometimes stood near Jane and called out lines that represented what she was thinking. When Rochester said she had a "peculiar mind" (as he did in the book), one of the "chorus" members asked, "Is peculiar good?" That is a, if not the, central question in assessing this production.

From odd beginning to odd end. The drama started with many of the actors taking turns proclaiming "It's a girl," heralding Jane's birth. This odd occurrence set up the play's ending (which I'll describe later).

After abbreviated versions of some of Jane's sufferings at home and at Lowood, she made her way toward Thornfield. Her first encounter with Rochester came when he fell from his horse, as in the book, but I don't recall Brontë writing that he shouted the "F-word" when he fell. As the first syllable from this actor's mouth — and being quickly repeated twice more — it seemed gratuitously obscene (especially since large groups of young teenaged schoolchildren attended this performance).

Some scenes were simplified and/or minimized even more than the small cast would necessitate. For example, we saw none of the "society" people except Blanche Ingram, and St. John had only one sister instead of two.

Jane's means of conveyance between towns, an imaginary horse-drawn carriage, was depicted by half a dozen actors (including her) standing in a group and running in place, as someone called out different stops along the route. I found all this bustle alarming the first time, merely strange after that.

Three musicians occasionally played in a back corner of the stage, most often (if I recall correctly) on guitar, drums, and keyboard. The dramatic music they provided was sometimes too loud, drowning out even shouted dialogue.

Additionally, a woman with a fine operatic voice walked around the set singing between some scenes. Her songs related to the action, but I found the lyrics banal, to the point where her performance distracted rather than edifying or moving the audience. She seemed merely like a wandering minstrel, but later she acted the role of Bertha Mason.

The actors seemed as skilled as one would expect from the National Theatre, though a few weaknesses cropped up. While Jane's portrayer spoke well, she seemed to have only one level of anguish that repeated whenever her emotions were in torment (as they so often were). Rochester was suitably tough and tender as required; as in some movie versions, though, we saw too little of him to understand why Jane fell for him. One tall fellow played quite a few roles, ranging from Reverend Brocklehurst to Pilot; his animated tail-wagging in the latter role greatly amused the audience, though it was used enough to become tiresome.

The production concluded with a final false note. After Jane and Rochester were wed, we saw her cradling what was supposed to be their first child — and in an echo of the opening scene, one actor after another exclaimed "It's a girl." This old traditionalist was wondering whether that symmetry was worth changing the baby's gender, as it had been a boy in the book.

This work was far from conventional theater. As an infrequent theatergoer, I may have been less familar than some other audience members with the liberties taken in modern plays. I found Jane Eyre interesting and worth the time and money I invested in it, but it didn't fully satisfy my itch for a high-class dramatic production. Instead, it left me wrestling with the aforementioned question: "Is peculiar good?"