Jane Eyre – live and in lights

You’ve read the book. You’ve probably seen the film. Now you can take can the stage play.

When the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (bear with me here) first came out, it was written as a radio series. The Book, a critical character, was written with actor Peter Jones in mind. I loved it. When the Beeb turned it into a TV series it was so disappointing, apart from the fact they kept Peter Jones as the Book. The books themselves weren’t much better and the film…. grrrr

Jane Eyre is a fantastic book. When I read it I loved it.

On Friday I went to the National Theatre. This is always a treat. It may be a concrete brutalist bunker from the outside but it is a magnificent complex of auditoriums (auditoria?) on the inside. The acting is uniformly superb. The parking easy. The journey from my home relatively straightforward (if any journey is in London).

And the staging, the sets, the productions are of such high class.

The only thing that occasionally disappoints are the plays. And if I’m honest Jane Eyre joined a list of disappointments.

I’ve seen worse – boy, have I seen worse. I stayed and stayed awake. But…

At over three hours this requires Shakespearean stamina. It’s hard to see how a multi-layered story like Jane Eyre could be done in less.

The reviewers have been generous in their praise and there are a number of highlights.

  • the set, a series of platforms and ladders, is both dynamic and eye catching
  • the use of wooden frames, like just so many windows and/or bars to emphasis Jane’s sense of entrapment cleverly done
  • having four actors as Jane’s internal dialogue and conscience works really well
  • the neat use of on the spot running to indicate a change the place – a stage coach journey as much as a sense of internal fleeing is captured well
  • I loved the singing – yep, it’s a bit musical and the singer  has a magnificent voice, as well as playing Bertha in the classic denouement to destroy the wedding – but the choice of songs – Mad About the Boy stands out as hopelessly inappropriate, since it took us out of the moment, caused us to exchange raised eyebrows and made us wonder were we really hearing it – this aural breaking of the implicit coda that we should remain on stage throughout jarred on occasion
  • Edward Rochester was both well cast and his character and his flaws well developed
  • the use of a trapdoor at the front of the stage into which characters entered when they died both neat and at times chilling.

But oh dear the start. Sure we need to follow Jane’s early years and maltreatment but it was all rather a Victorian melodrama for me. The staging, the dialogue, it was all too wooden. The play settles when Jane meets Mr Rochester for the first time when he is thrown from his horse – the relationship with the other inhabitants at Thornfield Hall is also well don, even if Adele is seriously overacted.

Reading the reviews I see that

It is the entirety of Jane’s psychological journey that interests [the director], not just her love for Rochester and the first act concentrates on her childhood experience of injustice and loss. – Telegraph

True but it’s done in such a trite ham-fisted way that any of the book’s subtleties were lost.

Maybe it’s me. The actress who plays Jane is a sufficient chameleon to convince as a dowdy mouse, a feisty counterpart to the sneering bullying of Rochester and the beauty of her flowering towards the end. And yet. And yet. Because a magnificent work is condensed the growth of her love, despite convention and good sense telling her no, which you believe when turning the pages, all seems to go against the character of Jane as she has developed in front of us.

The second act is an improvement (though the ending just so naff it would almost have been better had they just walked off). The applause was keen, polite but hardly euphoric as it can sometimes be when we have been wowed.

I suppose I’ve been spoilt reading the book. This feels like someone’s taken a wiki summary and used it to set the play. Or maybe someone has decided this is a good way for GCSE students to gain an understanding of the work. It is a set of snacks and not the full meal. Of course it is such a fabulous story to which they pay proper homage, that I didn’t fall asleep (a sure sign that the play needs something more). But that tell’s of Bronte’s skill not the director’s.

My conclusion? I wanted something with the depth of the book and I was stupid to think I might get it. If you go – and you will have a good time if you do – then try and forget the book and enjoy this as something different, a piece of fluff that passes three hours pleasantly enough. They would have been better off taking liberties with the story – at least that way we would have been guessing what might be coming next.

People who’ve not heard the HHGTTG on radio love the film; in many ways I envy them. I wonder if here are many who will see this play who haven’t read the book?

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published three books - Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, My Father and Other Liars and Salisbury Square. In addition I published an anthology of short stories, Life, in a Grain of Sand this summer. A fourth book will be out soon. This started life as a novel in a week on this blog and will follow later this year. I blog about all sorts at geofflepard.com and welcome all comments. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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29 Responses to Jane Eyre – live and in lights

  1. merrildsmith says:

    I love the book Jane Eyre. It’s one of my favorites, and one of my younger daughter’s favorites, as well. At her recent wedding, she carried a fan instead of flowers, and on the fan she wrote, “Reader, I married him.” (Her bridesmaids carried fans with other literary quotations.) It’s too bad the musical was so disappointing. I haven’t seen it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. lucciagray says:

    What a pity! Seems like you expected more. I hope to get the chance to see it in December, but I suspect I’ll also want more…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I read and enjoyed the book, but am not sure how it would translate to a play. From your account, it didn’t quite cut it! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A thorough piece of work, Geoff

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ali Isaac says:

    Sounds a bit arty-farty to me. As if they can improve on the original!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The pace of the great nineteenth century novels, like the Titanic compared with modern speedboats, doesn’t lend itself to adaptation to short sharp absorption. One of the great beauties of that particular style of novel writing was the slow, almost organic unfolding of events and character. I must admit I enjoyed the Charlotte Gainsburgh version, maybe because she and Rochester were (to my mind) so convincing. As a general rule though, I’m with you—adaptations in any direction usually fall short of the author’s original intentions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      I was sadden really because if it had take a different approach, used her themes and taken it and run with it, it would have been fine. It’s like abridging Shakespeare – you have the same story arc without the richness

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Norah says:

    I won’t have a chance to see it. From your review, I’m not disappointed. I didn’t think much of HHGTTG either! 🙂 That last comment is just to taunt you. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Interesting review – can’t imagine many people going who haven’t read it and it wouldn’t be my first choice for a musical. I taught it to 6th formers a couple of years ago and asked them to come up with songs they thought fitted the story – it was basically a lesson filled with suicidal goth/emo numbers that made Joy Division sound like a laugh!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. jan says:

    It would be interesting to see but I imagine, having studied Jane Eyre in college, I’d probably feel like you.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Annecdotist says:

    Ah, the inevitable downside of going out among people – to think you could have stayed home and read a book. Or come on my walk next summer?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Charli Mills says:

    I really enjoy small-town theater and the intimacy of the play in such settings. I think it forces (to an extent) acting that relies on audience participation in believing what is being performed. It is not easy to capture the complexities of a Victorian novel and what a feat to even bring it to the stage in such a massive setting.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Autism Mom says:

    Orson Welles, Joan Fontaine. Just saying. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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