“I MUST have action! And if I cannot find it, I will make it,” says Jane in the new Stephen Joseph Theatre and New Vic Theatre co-production of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
The same proclamation could apply to playwright Chris Bush, whose new adaptation is running in Scarborough until April 30 before switching to Newcastle-under-Lyme from May 4 to 28.
Sheffield-born Chris cut her playwriting teeth while studying English Literature at the University of York in 2007, going on to win the National Student Drama Festival & Pleasance Edinburgh Competition.
In her York days, Chris also worked in the box office at the Grand Opera House, but the box-office figures that matter now are those applying to Bush’s own works, from The Assassination Of Katie Hopkins to Standing At The Sky’s Edge, her play with songs by Richard Hawley at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre.
Now comes Chris’s “witty and fleet-footed adaptation that seeks to present Jane Eyre to a fresh audience while staying entirely true to the original’s revolutionary spirit”, staged by Zoë Waterman’s playful cast of multi role-playing actor-musicians.
“The SJT came to me to do this one,” she says. “Paul Robinson, the artistic director, got in touch with me. We’ve known each other for a little while; I’m on the artistic advisory board at the SJT; Paul was artistic director at Theatre 503 in London for ten years until 2016, and he knew my work from that time.
“The advisory board meets twice a year to talk about the work the SJT does, and he was saying, ‘wouldn’t it be lovely for you to do something here?’.”
Chris continues: “Opportunities for new work at the SJT are slightly limited by budgets, but Paul said they would be doing a Brontë festival and would I be interested in doing a play at the heart of it? Initially I was offered [Emily Brontë’s] Wuthering Heights, but then Jane Eyre, which I’m actually happier to do.”
Why? “I think I’m just really drawn to Jane both as a character and a figure. I’m a little shameful to admit my knowledge of the classic novels may not be definitive, but I love Jane’s determination to take control of her destiny,” she says.
Put bluntly, Jane may be “poor, obscure, plain and little, but that does not mean she is without passion”. Clever and uncompromising, with no patience for those who fail to meet her own high standards, she has no respect for authority, but lives by her own strict moral code, no matter what the consequences.
“I like a central character with a big arc, where she has to face fundamental change, but doesn’t compromise. Jane is rigid because she knows who she is and she will not bend.”
Chris considers Jane Eyre to be a proto-feminist text. “Charlotte Brontë has that authorial control, where she writes about the socio-political circumstances Jane finds herself in, where she is immoveable, and that brings problems for her as a woman without wealth and independent means,” she says.
“It’s totally out of the ordinary for someone like Jane not to compromise, whereas those born into privilege would have more of an opportunity.”
Chris’s adaptation retains the Victorian setting. “One of the things I didn’t want to do was to contemporise it, precisely because of everything I’ve just mentioned about Charlotte Brontë’s writing and the class structure that doesn’t exist anymore,” she says.
“I’ve done a few Shakespeare productions and I’m now doing Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle for CAST and the National Theatre Public Acts in Doncaster, working with 100 community actors.
“Whether Shakespeare, Brontë , Dickens, Brecht or the ancient Greeks, I want to treat the text with respect but not reverence. They’re loved for a reason, and let’s acknowledge that but chuck out everything we don’t need when you can’t get everything in from a 500-page book.”
For Jane Eyre, Chris has “not changed anything drastically, in terms of the plot or Jane’s motivation, but it also has to make sense to a modern audience,” she says.
“You have to land it where it has the appeal of someone who has control over her destiny, rather than being weak or lovelorn.
“Jane is absolutely revolutionary, and what you note is how it chimes with the religious teachings of the text. She puts a huge amount of weight in Christian values that we might now find old-fashioned or socially conservative, but what makes her so revolutionary is that she follows those Christian teachings but has no truck with the presumptions of the men of the cloth.
“She has a great belief in Christian values, while believing they are not exclusive to Christianity and being a character who is free-spirited and fiery.”
Chris’s adaptation eschews using a narrator. “I always feel a narrator is a bit of a cop-out, but there’s also a very practical reason this time: a narrator doesn’t work in a theatre-in-the-round, but someone playing a violin absolutely works,” she says.
“The conversation around music started with me and Paul, rather than Zoe, though I can’t remember if I said, ‘how about an actor-musician production?’, or if Paul did, but I’ve always liked musical theatre and using music in productions.”
In this instance, the songs are billed as “19th century pop hits”. More precisely, composer and sound designer Simon Slater oversees ballads, children’s tunes, hymnal music and songs that speak of Yorkshire and the North East to give a “real flavour of the period”.
“Using actor-musicians lets the whole thing feel light on its feet with that sense of being able to move forward through song,” says Chris.
Step forward Waterman’s cast of Eleanor Sutton’s Jane, Sam Jenkins-Shaw’s Mr Rochester, Nia Gandhi, Sarah Groarke, Tomi Ogbaro and Zoe West.
Stephen Joseph Theatre and New Vic Theatre present Jane Eyre at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarbrough, until April 30. Box office: 01723 370541 or at sjt.uk.com.