Sally Cookson’s Jane Eyre – the coming-of-age

Bristol Old Vic celebrates its 250th anniversary this year, and has planned a rich and packed programme to fit the grand occasion. It seems only right, then that they’ve chosen to open the curtains by revisiting the 19th century with Sally Cookson’s Jane Eyre. This two-part play was originally developed in Bristol, and then adapted for the stage in London, at the National Theatre in a more ‘condensed’ form of a 210-minute run.

‘It’s a girl’, ‘it’s a girl’ – cry the acting crew, setting the tone of what is to be a spectacular coming-of-age story.

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To attempt adapting a novel into a play is no easy matter, and adapting one with such acclaim must be an intimidating and daunting venture. What to change? What to keep? What to focus on? What to show, and how? The audience felt expectant and curious to find this out.

What followed was a spectacular piece of theatre that, while loyal to the original story all the while, has used all the freedoms allowed by the live medium: the music, the physicality, the colours and the props that revive the static text with a new life of its own. Jane’s onomatopoeia of a crying baby – Jane’s birth cries – put smiles on the audience’s faces and marks the creative beginning.

As with any big story, the work is multi-faceted, and everyone can find particular aspects and even sub-stories for their own benefit. Cookson has found her own interpretation of Jane Eyre, presenting an independent woman who doesn’t let her principles and desires be diminished, even in the bleak reality of her own circumstance.

Jane Eyre-142 Photography Manuel Harlan

Charlotte Brontë’s original title of the book was Jane Eyre – An Autobiography, and this was the guiding concept of Cookson’s endeavour: to unveil a ‘life story’, rather than a ‘love story’, as the work is so often labelled by the general public. Even in the light of modern times, when the maturation of an empowered woman is the norm, to see Jane Eyre’s independent rise in the unlikely environment of unlove, always being stifled and tamed, is nothing short of extraordinary. To learn to stand up for oneself where everyone else bows their heads is always revolutionary. This is the Jane Eyre the audience witnesses – the coming-of-age of a heroine before their eyes.

The play cuts to the core of the story – that is, it uses the elements that propel Jane Eyre’s suffering and yearning towards action. The birth of the unlikely woman hero ends with the birth of another. ‘It’s a girl’ – Rochester and Jane cry out. It’s a cry of hope. It’s a cry of pride.

Jane Eyre continues at Bristol Old Vic until Sat 6 Feb. For more info, visit www.bristololdvic.org.uk/janeeyre.html.

Photography: Manuel Harlan