National Theatre (UK) Production: Jane
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
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
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
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
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
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
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