Hong Kong-bound production of Jane Eyre finds the right voices
Bristol Old Vic's adaptation of the Gothic romance one of the highlights of this year's Hong Kong Arts Festival
Soon after Charlotte Brontë saw her first book, Jane Eyre, published to great acclaim in 1847, she wrote to a friend about something that was troubling her.
She had not, she confessed, served the character of Bertha, the mad woman in the attic, very well. She had made her a monster, instead of a real person with real concerns and feelings.
“It made me certain that I wanted to make up for that,” says Sally Cookson, whose thrilling new version of Jane Eyre for the Bristol Old Vic theatre in the UK will be performed here next week as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival.
“Charlotte Brontë felt she hadn’t given Bertha a voice … And I realised that just the word ‘voice’ had triggered an idea. Why not give her a beautiful voice, I thought …”
So she cast jazz and musical singer Melanie Marshall in an extraordinary role that makes the mad woman in the attic one of the voices in Jane Eyre’s own head, as well as letting her express her own pain and relationship with the story.
Jane Eyre is the story of an orphan who is sent to a charity school and later takes a job as a governess in a remote house in Yorkshire. When she meets the difficult, but somehow attractive master of the house, Edward Rochester, she finds herself falling for him. But all the time she is troubled by strange sounds coming from the attic. And nobody will tell her what is happening.
“I saw the  Orson Welles film before I read the book,” Cookson says. “I remember being stunned by it: the music in particular was so extraordinary.”
Thenshe read the original book, recalls the director: “And he got it so wrong.” He had, she says, somehow missed out the voice of Jane altogether.
The tempting thing for any adaptation – and even a three-and-a-quarter hour play has to lose much more than it keeps – is to concentrate on the complicated love story between Rochester and Jane and the mystery of the attic.
But Cookson felt strongly that this book was more than a Gothic love story, and that the heart of the piece, “was Jane’s striving to find fulfilment in her life,” says Cookson. “It’s about an aspiration to be happy, and a feeling that you have to fight against injustice, whether that unfairness is against yourself or against other people.”
Cookson’s process as a director is unusual and painstaking, and remarkably challenging and exciting for the cast.
She rarely starts directing a play by using an actual script, for example. And she is renowned for changing things round at the last moment, keeping everyone on their toes.
“The dramaturge Mike Akers and I worked for about eight months with the book in front of us,” she says. “We were filleting the text, deciding which characters were in and which were out, what scenes we would include and which ones we would scrap, and what each scene achieved.
“And finally we got the actors in.”
At that point, she says, there was no actual script.
That would come from the actors improvising the scenes, and exploring the characters, and finding humour and pathos in small moments.
There was also no decision about stage design at the beginning, although after inviting the actors at a very early stage to play with ladders and a bit of scaffolding Cookson realised that she wanted Rochester’s house, Thornfield, to be almost a character in its own right. She would do that through a set that other people have called an “adventure playground”.
Like a fantasy tree house, it is made of ladders and various levels, suggesting attics and basements and rooms and bars, giving the play a kind of inbuilt movement, even before anyone steps on stage.
Cookson brought in music director and composer Benji Bower, who sat in all the early rehearsals equipped with his own rather eccentric “mini orchestra” comprising a cello, a “weird, beautiful instrument called a waterphone”, “a whole load of gongs, some crazy brass instruments” and a piano, “which he sometimes opens up and plays the strings”.
There were a few big decisions she still needed to make. The book is written in the first person; its original title was Jane Eyre: an Autobiography.
“But I definitely didn’t want to have the actor playing Jane narrating to the audience,” Cookson says. “I thought that would be boring.”
So instead other members of the cast – who each play many different roles – sometimes speak as the voices from Jane’s head.
And she also needed to think about Rochester’s dog, Pilot.
Pilot offers not only an opportunity for comedy, but also provides another way (as well as the chorus of inner voices or the jazz song of the woman in the attic) of exploring the question that in a way is key to this brilliant adaptation: of how we tell our innermost feelings if we do not use words.
Where a repressed Rochester cannot say something, Pilot can suggest it. Where Rochester cannot show that he is pleased to see Jane, his dog can race up to her with pure joy and be a channel for his real feelings.
And how it is done is a delight. I won’t reveal it, but when I saw it in Bristol last month the man sitting next to me whispered to his companion: “That dog: it’s stealing the show!”
Jane Eyre, Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Feb 18 to 21, HK$280 to HK$580. Inquiries: 2824 2430