Directed and adapted by Bryony J. Thompson, The Rosemary Branch Theatre’s 2014 production of Jane Eyre proved to be one of the purest and most effective adaptations of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel that I have seen to date. The script is entirely mined from the original text, retaining both Jane’s first person narration as well as important dialogue from the novel. Befitting the quaint size of the black box theatre, a small cast of three women and two men seamlessly navigate the audience through Brontë’s scenes and characters. The performance space is bereft of set, and plain wooden chairs serve as the only props at the actors’ disposal. Minimal lighting and the occasional soft underscoring of a piano round out this simple and intimate production. As with the extremely strong ensemble cast, multiple aspects of this performance work in cohesion to produce a subtle and sincere piece of theatre.
Thompson’s exclusive use of Brontë’s original language is probably the key component of her production’s success. One of the most important reasons the novel is so effective is the intimacy of Jane’s first person narration; Jane continuously implores and coaxes her ‘Reader’ to be swept along in the current of her tale. In Thompson’s adaptation, although dominated by Hannah Maddison (Jane Eyre), the first person narrative is often effortlessly woven together by the collective ensemble. In several scenes, whilst suffering internal throes of passion, Jane is bodily passed from one actor to another as the cast verbally and physically echo her emotions. Along with the lack of tangible scenery, this staging allows for the theatre audience to have a visceral, imaginative experience reflective to that of reading the novel.
The Rosemary Branch Theatre houses a very small black box space situated above a bustling pub. The theatre seats an audience of about forty in stadium seating rising up from the theoretical proscenium of the performance space. For Jane Eyre, the walls of the black box appear whitewashed and clean. Similarly, the actors are all clad in plain off-white linen costumes that appropriately nod towards the early Victorian setting of the show. The simplicity of the presentation is harmonious with the sober Protestantism of Jane’s character—her pure spirit and open passion. Also, as with the personal experience of novel reading, the blank stage allows viewers to paint their own imaginative scenery. Despite a stage bereft of props and colour, the talented ensemble of actors manages to richly enliven the text and believably create objects out of thin air.
A strong and balanced cast is essential in Thompson’s adaptation. Fortunately, all of the players in her Jane Eyre exhibit skilful and enjoyable engagement with Brontë’s dialogue. Along with their shared narration of Jane’s emotions, the supporting actors each double multiple characters from the novel. Joss Wyre brings particular energy and humour to the show with her playful representation of Jane’s pupil, Adele. Lilly Beck also effectively navigates from the role of the proper Mrs Fairfax to the terrifying Bertha with unflinching sincerity. The necessarily potent chemistry between Jane and Rochester is also thankfully present between Maddison and Rob Pomfret. Only Phillip Honeywell’s portrayal of Brocklehurst and St. John occasional errs on the side of histrionic. Over all, the cast works extremely well together to create delightful individual performances.
The text of Brontë’s novel burgeons with vivacity, spirit, and heart—and seemingly quaint instances become branded with passionate significance. The Rosemary Branch Theatre’s production definitely echoes this spirit. The show benefits from visual simplicity, relying instead on the complexity of Brontë’s words and the actors’ embodiments of Brontë’s passions. It is a rare delight to witness a literary text so reverentially transformed for the stage. Overall, whether the audience is acquainted with the original novel or not, Thompson’s adaption of Jane Eyre is moving and highly entertaining.
Review by Weekes Gaehl, March 2014
12 – 30 March 2014
Directed and Adapted by Bryony J. Thompson
Original Music by James Young
Lighting by Ned Lay
Tickets (£10) – 0207 704 6665