Exclusive: Sally Cookson on Jane Eyre

Published September 23, 2015

“Fresh and exciting” said the Evening Standard. “Original, engaging and unexpectedly funny” declared The Telegraph. These aren’t exactly the most obvious reactions to an adaptation of a 170-year-old story, but Sally Cookson’s groundbreaking staging of Charlotte Brontë’s 19th century novel Jane Eyre has won over audiences with its innovative take on the classic.

In this exclusive piece for Official London Theatre, the director describes how she went about bringing one of literature’s best known novels to the stage and why a traditional costume drama just wasn’t going to cut it:

The starting point for this production was Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre. There are several play adaptations out there already, but I was keen to make a new version and discover with the company what gives the book its enduring power, what has kept it on the bestsellers list for the last 170 years.

I find it thrilling to excavate a text with a company of creative theatremakers because the possibilities of what you discover are extraordinary. At the beginning of the process, before we went into rehearsals, I spent time investigating which elements of the story I wanted to emphasise.

Jane Eyre has become known as a passionate love story, which indeed it is, but that is only part of it. The voice of Jane Eyre speaks of passion, lower caste aspiration and female rage – it is a story of a young girl’s longing for fulfilment, and fulfilment on her own terms – a concept very much at odds with the dictates and confines of the Victorian society of her day.

It was the first novel to give voice to the rising frustration and sense of injustice felt by women trapped in a patriarchal environment. For me what makes the novel so great is the weight placed on individual human rights. Jane has a fundamental understanding of what she needs in order to thrive as a human being; unless she is nourished, not just physically but intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, life is wasted. Jane, with her spirit and strong will, her peculiar and brilliant mind, strives for personal freedom to be who she is and she lashes out against any constraint that prevents her from being herself. I think of the book as a coming of age story, a life story as opposed to just a love story.

Rather than approach the novel as a piece of costume drama romance, I was keen to explore the themes and get to the heart of the story and characters in a theatrical way, and make it resonate with a modern audience. I didn’t want loads of authentic set and costume stuff to suffocate the story so that it became a dinosaur of a piece, killing the essence and magic of the story. Michael Vale’s wonderful playground of a set and Katie Syke’s magnificent costumes suggest the period setting rather than imposing it, they allow the actors freedom to climb, run and hang off the set.

We discovered early on that finding the right voice and language for the characters was important. If we just lifted the dialogue from the book to the stage, it felt stuffy and the characters became quite wooden. If we allowed the actors to simplify the archaic language and add their own improvised text, the characters came to life.

Sometimes we discovered that Brontë’s language served us well and nothing could compare with her beautiful choice of words. It has been trial and error, and involved a lot of grappling and wrestling with the text. We spent hours improvising the episodes we wanted to show. Sometimes the best way to interpret a scene is with text, sometimes through movement and music, and at other times hearing a song underscoring textless action is what is needed.

Our job at the National has been to amalgamate the two parts into one, which has been challenging. The trickiest aspect of this process has been to ensure we have a satisfying story arc. We quickly discovered that if we just cut bits and squidged it all together it felt wrong. We had to very carefully change the entire structure. It felt a bit like dismantling a car, laying out all the pieces on the floor and then putting them back together in a different order and hoping that the engine would start! We’ve cut over 30 minutes of material from its original form, which allows the evening to feel more intense.

The whole process is collaborative and demands a great deal of trust and faith. It can be an utterly terrifying prospect to start without a script.