Sally Cookson: Adapting Jane Eyre, Wales Millennium Centre

May 22, 2017 by

Adapting a novel for the stage is a challenging prospect – especially when that novel is cited as many people’s favourite of all time. I didn’t actually read the novel until I was in my early twenties – and I remember thinking while I read it: ‘this is a clarion cry for equal opportunities for women, not a story about a passive female who will do anything for her hunky boss’.

I was struck by how modern Jane seemed – her spirit and strong will, her peculiar and brilliant mind striving for personal freedom to be who she is, lashing out against any constraint that prevents her from being herself. Our job has been to turn it from a book into a piece of theatre. 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, killing the essence and magic of the story.

Our version emphasises the coming-of-age aspects of the novel as opposed to focusing just on the Jane/Rochester relationship. The devising process involved us as a company responding together to the book. On that first day of rehearsal, there was no script, no read-through, just us as a company taking a deep breath together, making a leap into the unknown, trusting that eight weeks later, we’d have a show to perform. A key aspect of my role as director is to act as a facilitator and editor of the creativity in the room – I love shaping the material that emerges, pursuing and developing the kernels of ideas.

Re-reading the book now, I’m struck by the weight the novel places on individual human rights. 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 well-being and Jane has a fundamental understanding of this. I like to think of it as a ‘life story’ rather than a ‘love story’ which sees Jane develop from a powerless child into an independent, free-thinking adult. But, like any fine piece of writing, Jane Eyre is multi-faceted and it seems that whoever you are and whatever your age, each reader will gain something slightly different from it.

Despite the fact that it was written over one hundred and sixty 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 have all experienced. Surrounding the heroine are characters grappling with their own individual identity crises. Whether it’s Rochester or Helen Burns, Mrs Reed or Bertha Mason – all these characters are flailing around in an attempt to come to terms with 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 in danger of being threatened.

I would describe this version of Jane Eyre as an ensemble piece – performed by seven actors and three musicians. Apart from the actor who plays Jane, the actors play more than one part and are all on stage most of the time.

The set which is a wooden structure made up of platforms, ramps and ladders is far from a literal interpretation of the Victorian period – it has a minimalist simplicity but provides the actors with a playground on which to perform and illustrate the physical and emotional struggle Jane encounters as she develops from a child into an independent woman.


Wales Millennium Centre, June 27 to July 1, 2017

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