Blackeyed Theatre have become something of a staple of the regional touring theatre scene. This revival of their 2018 adaptation of Jane Eyre, directed by company founder Adrian McDougall, penned by Nick Lane and with an original score by George Jennings, is a reminder of why Blackeyed Theatre have consistently managed to stay popular among audiences. With it’s multi-roling cast of five, this production captures the sweeping, romantic heart of Charlotte Bronte’s gothic novel through its lush music and passionate characters, and eerie, haunting design.
Featuring Kelsey Short as the titular role, Nick Lane’s script builds a psychological portrait of Eyre as a heroine from early on, aided by McDougall’s skilled direction of those early formative memories. The claustrophobia of the red room is created by three white sheets, lit in red and closed in around a nine year old Jane, creating the sense of the red room not as a physical space, but as a child would remember it as if it were something from a nightmare.
The turbulent childhood which sees Jane’s ferality beaten out of her passes from one misfortune after the other, though most memorable is the chemistry between Kelsey Short and Eleanor Toms as Jane Eyre and Helen Burns respectfully; Helen’s shy warmth towards Jane is played with a genuine pathos, and even though those of us who are familiar with the novel know that their sisterly love is cut short by Helen’s untimely death, part of me couldn’t help but root for these two lonely little girls.
Although there are gaps in some of Jane’s transitions, such as the lack of explanation why she became a teacher or what prospects were available to her upon leaving the school, this doesn’t pose too much of an issue as Jane’s emotional development takes the forefront over the social commentary in this adaptation. Additionally, Ben Warwick’s take on Rochester is reminiscent of David Bowie’s turn as Jareth in Frank Oz’ 1986 film Labyrinth, and it is entirely understandable why Jane is so drawn to his confidence. This is, in every sense, a typical gothic romance where the emotional development of the characters run deep, and sensation takes priority over practicality.
The only major issue I found with this production was it’s treatment of Bertha Mason, the original ‘mad woman in the attic’, confined there by Rochester. While what Rochester does to Bertha is unforgivable, I found that there was a little too much sympathy for him for my liking; although Jane is understandably horrified when she finds out what he has done to Bertha, we see her only briefly for one scene before she is, almost too conveniently, killed off. While of course this is what happens in the source material, I felt that there was a distinct lack of empathy for Bertha as anything more than an obstacle to Jane and Rochester’s relationship.
Camilla Simson is a committed and clearly talented performer throughout many of the roles that she takes on during this adaptation, and while her portrayal of Bertha is well delivered, I have to question the choices made by the writer which led to Bertha’s only appearance in the piece to be her screaming and trying to claw Jane’s eyes out, especially when immediately followed by Rochester portraying himself as the victim of the Mason’s plot to pawn off their mentally ill daughter on him. As somebody who suffers from mental illness myself, I found it uncomfortable how little Rochester’s coldness towards Bertha and the presentation of her as something almost demon-like is challenged. There seems to be very little sympathy towards her in the gaze of the audience, and it feels as though she is villainised in a way that doesn’t seem particularly fair.
Of course any adaptation of a classic text cannot be blamed for the social attitudes of the time of writing, but there are ways to challenge the more problematic aspects of the story while staying true to the source material. This didn’t happen, instead Bertha turns up, screams while Rochester dismisses her as his crazy ex, she dies, then that is the end of the matter. The iconic ‘Reader, I married him’ line is delivered as a romantic proclamation, rather than a confession from a woman who knows that the man she is marrying is capable of such abuse.
Despite my discomfort with this particular take on Bertha Mason, Blackeyed Theatre’s Jane Eyre is an excellent addition to the company’s long history of successful classical adaptations. It’s unexpectedly funny in places, sweepingly romantic and captures the dark, melancholic heart of Bronte’s novel excellently.
Jane Eyre played South Hill Park until 4 November. It will soon be made available for streaming. For more information, see Blackeyed Theatre online.