Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is of course best known in its original form as a novel, but there have been numerous adaptations since its original publication in 1847 and it remains firmly in the English literary cannon, as well as the modern cultural consciousness. The most recent play adaptation was written by Polly Teale for the theatre company Shared Experience. It was first performed on the 4th of September, 1997, directed by Teale herself. It’s great success lead to the publication of the play in 1998, with subsequent reprints. It played in various locations throughout the UK until 2006 including some time in the West End (I saw it in Richmond Theatre in February 2006) and then began a world tour. Since then, resources have been developed so the play can be used in drama education.
The story in brief follows the life of Jane through from her childhood as an orphan living with her overbearing aunt and spoilt cousins, to her struggles as an adult desiring to find love and acceptance, and overcome the restrictions of her gender and low social position. The resolution of the play sees her find what she was looking for in marrying the proud but caring Mr Rochester, but her journey there has many obstacles, including characters such as: The tyrannical Mr Brocklehurst, who scares and abuses her as a child; the beautiful Miss Blanche Ingram, her perceived rival for Mr Rochester; her pious cousin St John who’s offer of marriage she turns down and the most domineering Bertha, Mr Rochester’s first wife. Jane does not discover her until her own wedding, and on finding out leaves him. In their interpretation however, it is Bertha who calls her back. The resolution of the play, but notably not the novel, sees the three couples in the play finding harmony together: Jane and Rochester, who are eventually reunited, but also Jane and Bertha and Rochester and Bertha, who is with them, stroking their faces in the final scene. The dramatic structure is chronological, but for one scene with a flashback to Bertha as a young woman.
Through telling Jane’s story, Shared Experience also aimed to explore the duality of the conscious and the unconscious, “ the relationship between the world we inhabit and our inner lives” (www.sharedexperiece.org.uk/company). Jung’s theories, which Teale has studied, observe that “conscious and unconscious do not make a whole when one of them is suppressed and injured by the other”; this is what she explores in Jane through the character of Bertha. In Jane’s life as a lower-class Victorian woman, there is a lot she cannot say or express that becomes repressed, in a new and unique realisation of the story, Bertha is used in the play as a way of showing Jane’s suppressed inner thoughts, both visually and through the text in a non-naturalistic style, she is physicalising Jane’s subtext in the play. In the opening scene of the play, Bertha and Jane appear together as one person, their “limbs entangled” (p7), reading a book. As Jane reads aloud, Bertha represents her imagination, plucking imaginary fruit and whirling around like a hurricane. She is dressed as a child like Jane, but wears brighter colours and behaves in a much more wild manner, as Jane is inside but cannot act for fear of punishment. Her inner-self also longs to be more defensive. When bullied by her cousin, it is Bertha that stands up to him and attacks him, on behalf of Jane. The bite she administers on his right shoulder and the blood, a vivid red, becomes a motif in the play and represents her strongest feelings of anger and betrayal. When Jane is locked in “the red room” as punishment for this outburst, Bertha is silenced and her subsequent expressions are made only visually and through noises such as growling. The red room becomes Bertha’s attic, her prison, where she spends the remainder of the play. The red of the room symbolises Jane and Bertha’s rage, but also their fierce passion.
In the staging of the play, the space was dark, neutral and flexible but for the red room/Bertha’s attic which was a small, wooden platform situated up a staircase on the left of the stage. Other spaces were created through use of props such as chairs and a bed, but these were kept to a minimum so the set could be changed quickly and easily, which was done by cast members. Separating the room in this way shows how Bertha has been marginalised from Rochester and from society. It also illustrates how Jane has had to distance herself from and shut out her passionate inner-self, but that unconscious self is still there.
There are many examples in the play where, despite the physical separation, the mental link between Bertha and Jane is shown. When Jane encounters Blanche Ingram and feels jealousy for the first time, Bertha becomes “violent”, (Scene 16, p39) a visual representation of Jane’s emotions. They also both react to Rochester, who they both love. When he sings at his party (Scene 17) Jane listens at the door to the room and Bertha listens too, pressing her ear against the floor in a similar gesture. Bertha also reflects positive emotions in Jane. When she returns to Rochester from her Aunt’s for example, a rare moment when she lets herself go and dances round the stage, Bertha mirrors her movements.
The play used other visuals to bring out the themes in the writing. The most effective one of these I felt was fire, which was used to represent Jane and Bertha’s temperament and passion. It is a symbol of being out of control, of being wild and free but it can also be dangerous and fatal. When Jane is a child, fire is used as a threat against her in the form of the threat of hell. She learns to fear it, as she learns to fear letting herself go. There are two fires started at Thornfield by Bertha, expressions of her freedom when she escapes the attic. The first occurs when Jane has just started to develop feelings for Rochester, Bertha descends the stairs in the darkness wielding a flaming torch, straddles Rochester and then sets fire to his room. The flames represent the sexual desire that they cannot express. Bertha also destroys herself and her prison with fire, which is paralleled with Jane’s decision to come back to Rochester. The fire allows them both to be free; Bertha, in death and through that death, Jane in marriage.
The greatest challenge I feel playwrights and theatre companies face in adapting novels, particularly novels which are narrated from one sole perspective in such a deeply self-revelatory way, is characterisation. How can ninety minutes on a stage replicate the journey a reader takes through several hundred pages? Teale and Shared Experience succeeded in this however, in a play that was deeply emotionally engaging, moving and extremely memorable, as I have hopefully demonstrated in my recounting of aspects of it. Jane finding happiness with Rochester, the romantic and arguably most famous part of the story, appears like a subplot through Shared Experience’s production, to Jane’s discovery of herself.
Image Credit: V&A Museum. http://www.vam.ac.uk/users/node/8850