Jane Eyre at the Newbury Corn Exchange

This is the second theatre adaptation of Jane Eyre that I’ve reviewed since I started my blog (and my second trip to Newbury’s Corn Exchange within two weeks). The previous one was just over four years ago, of the celebrated touring production that I saw at London’s National Theatre (review here). In comparing my notes from last night with my write-up from four years ago, I’ve discovered that the two productions were fairly similar in approach, with a bare-bones collection of wooden structures and furniture creating the set, and a handful of actors covering all the parts. Last night’s was even more stripped-back, with just a few blackened planks and a partial staircase representing the ruin of Thornfield Hall and serving as the backdrop for all the other settings. And here there were only five cast members, as compared to the NT’s 10: three actresses and two actors, with all bar one (Jane) revolving through the roles via simple costume changes like donning a bonnet or a waistcoat.

Probably my favorite aspect of this production was the live music. An antique piano stood at stage left and all the actors took turns playing it for background music or as part of a specific scene. Other instruments were also taken up occasionally: fiddle, cello, guitar, harmonium and recorder. Whereas the NT production made anachronistic use of pop songs, this production stuck to folk music that seemed appropriate to the time period. St. John Rivers’s pompous piety was exaggerated for comic effect, with Mrs. Fairfax another particularly amusing character. As in the NT show, one actor even briefly played Pilot the dog.

There were a few decisions that were less than successful for me, though. An eight-year jump between Helen’s death at Lowood School and Jane’s arrival at Thornfield Hall feels like a jolt. Jane wears the same dress throughout and nothing indicates her aging. She narrates her story as if she is revisiting her life in her mind. At a few points these explanations from the front of the stage slow down the action. Meanwhile, the strong Yorkshire accent the actress used was so much like Daisy’s in Downton Abbey that I struggled to take her seriously – it’s too much of a contrast with the Queen’s English most of the other characters speak. Is what we think of as a Yorkshire accent now actually how people spoke at that time?

But the chief transgression was omitting the pivotal scene in which Jane hears Rochester calling out to her and knows she has to return to Thornfield. Instead, Jane just makes a rational decision to “go home” after St. John leaves for India. Did the director think that modern audiences would find the mild supernatural content too unbelievable? Or was it just a practical matter in that the actor portraying Rochester happened to be playing the piano at that point? Surely a way could have been found around that.

In any case, it was a pleasant way to pass a few hours on a squally October night.

My rating:

 

There is more information on the play, including photographs and a video trailer, on the Corn Exchange website.

 

What’s the last thing you saw at the theatre?

13 responses

  1. I’m not an expert on this, but IIRC, standard English is a relatively recent sign of class, so it makes sense for Jane to not speak RP. This doesn’t excuse a dodgy accent from the actress or the weird decision to make only Jane have a regional accent, though!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good to have you weigh in on this. Helen Burns also spoke with a Yorkshire accent, but I think that was it. Do you think “speaking properly” would have been part of the school curriculum at that time? I wondered if a change in her accent could have been used as a sign of her growing up and becoming educated.

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      1. I’m not sure – perhaps in a more affluent school, but less likely in the kind of charitable school Jane attended, and it would probably have been seen as less important in this period (IIRC, Jane Eyre is also set a couple decades earlier than when it was published?). Bronte had an Irish accent (picked up from her father, Patrick) which was remarked upon in London, but I *think* that among regional gentry/middle-class people non-RP accents would have been much less unusual in the early C19th than the late C19th.

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    2. Good point about the Irish family connections and accent — I hadn’t thought of that!

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  2. It sounds as if the production gave Jane a ‘generic’ Yorkshire accent. Even now, it’s usually easy to tell which part of Yorkshire someone is from. The accents spoken in towns really quite near one another are markedly different – Leeds and Wakefield for example. So it seems to me that either all the characters should have had local accents, or none. Nevertheless, if this production fetches up near me, it looks worth an evening of my life! By the way, in my (state) London Grammar school in the 1960s, we had Spoken English lessons in our first year there to get rid of any regional accents we might have (‘sahf London’). Though to be fair, back then, anyone aspiring to the professions needed to speak RP.

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    1. This is fascinating to hear. I did my Master’s at Leeds and I remember there were a few students from Wakefield and Barnsley, but to my American ear their accents would have sounded the same as Leeds’.

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      1. Just as I, shamefully, can’t always distinguish Canadian from American.

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    2. They’re tough to distinguish, it’s true. It’s only in a few words that it becomes obvious (stereotypically, “about” and “sorry”).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting review! I haven’t seen a play of this, although I have seen Wuthering Heights.
    I don’t think Jane would have had a strong Yorkshire accent.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve also seen four movie versions, but not the famous 1940s one.

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      1. I have seen the 40s one, the 2006 TV adaptation and also the more recent film (which I think is the best I’ve seen).

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  4. I can’t believe they missed out the calling her name bit, that’s so pivotal. This is why I avoid film and theatre re-tellings of my favourites, I’m afraid. I ignored the latest TV version because Mr Rochester didn’t look right to me …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My favourite version was the one with Samantha Morton and Ciaran Hinds.

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