Sunday, November 11, 2007

Jane Eh--Jane Eyre @ Guthrie

Mr. Sweetie and I went to the Guthrie Theater this weekend to see Jane Eyre. Yes! A date! An actual date! (Made possible by the fact that the kidlets are old enough to stay home alone now!)

I am a middleweight Bronte fan, so I was looking forward to this. What is a middleweight Bronte fan, you ask? Well, I have read most of the oeuvre, excepting Charlotte's The Professor, and Anne's Agnes Grey. I have dipped into the juvenalia, and even own Elizabeth Gaskill's biography of Charlotte. I took a seminar in college, and wrote one of my best ever papers on Jane Eyre.

I am not a heavyweight fan, as I have no trinkets, memorabilia, reproduction of Branwell's art, nor have I been to Haworth--yet--and I have never had the privilege of eating "Bronte buns."

Of course, I adored Jasper Fforde's delightfully literary The Eyre Affair, and have browbeaten everyone I know (and who is capable of being beaten about the brows) into reading it. I am not kidding about this one either. So, I was fully primed and loaded for this Guthrie production.

I did something I never do. I left during intermission. It was just that wrong.

Shall we start from the beginning? The stage--the signature Guthrie thrust stage--had huge stylized windows and walls, sketching the dimensions of a room, all painted in greys and gloom. Extending from the backdrop were various levels of steps and platforms, all themselves rounded and painted in the same gray and gloom. Which was fine for Gateshead, where Jane is 12 and very very alone. Sadly, the same set served for Lowood--again, not a terrible choice, but it didn't change for Thornfield either.

Which I think is a mistake. In order to represent the different rooms, individual pieces of furniture made their appearance on the stage--but the scale was all wrong. The stage was so overwhelming that nothing overcame its ominous omnipresence.

Mistake #2--A matronly Jane as narrator. Much of what happens in the book is, of course, internal monologue, which can be tricky to represent on stage. The answer, in my opionn, is NOT a 50-ish Jane, looking as plump and kindly as Mrs. Claus, wandering the set, reassuring by her very presence that everything will end happily. Because it doesn't end in a traditional "happy" ending. I'm not sure it is fair to say that Jane is a "happy" creature. She is capable of many many complex emotions, but she is too complicated a character to be just "happy." But a apple dumpling of a Jane is just not the right tone. Maybe an older Jane could serve as the voice that guides Jane (in the book) during her moments of crisis--the decisive moment when she flees Thornfield, or when she rejects St. John Rivers and hears Rochester calling her--to capture that otherworldly wisdom Jane accesses. Maybe that happened in this version--I didn't stay to see it.

Mistake #3--Bringing the funny. Really, there were bits that had the audience laughing out loud, which threw the tone off entirely. Jane and Rochester do not crack each other up. Mrs. Fairfax is not a comedienne. If you make their exchanges humorous, then you introduce the risk of camp to the entire proceeding. I mean, face it--it takes a certain emotional immersion to accept the madwoman in the attic, the threat of bigamy, the illegitimacy of Adele as serious matters in the 21st century. You need to see them as the serious issues they are to Jane. If you see Mrs. Fairfax's reticence on the subject of "what is in the attic" as funny, you've lost the threat. Jane then becomes a fool to be frightened of it all, and there goes the play.

Mistake #4--Too much plot. Sadly, by cramming the entire story--starting at Gateshead, this play is looooooooooong. At the same time, while the first half (!) lasted an hour and a half, the story just rushes past everything, diminishing the emotional impact. Jane's stay at Lowood lasts about 20 minutes, which means the scenes there go like this:

What is this place?
It is a school for orphans.
I'm Jane Eyre.
Hi. I'm Helen, and I have a cough.
I'm your teacher, Miss Temple. Have some seed cake.
Oh, Jane, I am so cold! *cough cough* Stay with me.
Helen is dead!
Now that I am 18, I would like to work somewhere other than Lowood.
Here is a position for you at a place called Thornfield.

And off Jane goes. Can you tell that she had any particular grief over Helen's death? Not so much. It's more that Lowood needed the Health Department to investigate, and Helen's death got the matter cleared up. Well done.

Gateshead is much the same. If you didn't already know that Jane's uncle was the one who brought her into the family, but then died, you wouldn't have learned it from the play. Nor would you have any idea why "the Red Room" was such a threat. These two scenes took about 40 minutes--far too long for any impact they had on our understanding of Jane, far too short to get anything out of them.

Mistake #5--40 minutes of child actors. I mean, really. There is no way anyone could have made much out of the speed record set by these scenes. Populating them with so many children means that it was 40 minutes of waiting for time to pass. There were so many other, shorter, more effective ways to represent Jane's formative years. I can think of at least three:

  • Jane describes them while at Thornfield. Perhaps when she first meets Mrs. Fairfax. Or Adele. Or Rochester. Or all three. E.g. "You are very fortunate, Adele. Let me tell you about my family. . ." Or, "I learned to paint, sir, under conditions of emotional turmoil. My only friend in the world, Helen Burns. . ."
  • Matron Jane describes them. E.g. "Thornfield was my first true home. My aunt's house, Gateshead was dominated by my tyrannical cousin. . ."
  • Pantomime/dance/tableau/visual images. The costumes set these early years at about the same time as Nutcracker is set. So do a ballet or something to just set the images in our minds.
I could go on, but I won't. I will say that there were three moments where something wonderful happened on stage. First, when Bertha first appears, and she sets fire to Rochester's bed. Bertha was played by Charity Jones, who has been a longtime performer with the Children's Theater company, and is very physical in her training. Her Bertha enters Rochester's bedroom, sees him, and climbs up onto the foot of his four poster bed. She stands on the footboard, her legs apart, her skirt pulled up--a perfect picture of mad carnality. This is a sexual woman who is also out of her mind, and would believably tear her lover to pieces in his sleep.

Second, after Jane douses the fire Bertha has set, we see Rochester in his nightshirt. Maybe it's just me, but there is something very vulnerable about a man in bare feet like that, and a bit sexy too. Here, Rochester is defenseless, and Jane is his savior and secret keeper. It makes his attachment to her very believable--she has seen him at his weakest, and he is not embarrassed by it. (Of course, the scene would have been better if she had not been completely buttoned up and corseted and dressed in her dayclothes. She was quite invulnerable, and there is no reason to believe that Rochester would have seen her as capable of love in this scene.)

Finally, the scene where Rochester proposes. He has lead Jane to believe that he is going to marry Blanche Ingram. She asks to be allowed to leave, as she does not want to stay and watch him be married to another woman. He refuses to let her go, but he refuses to tell her plainly. She ends up struggling against him, defiantly protesting that she has a soul that is as important as his, and he has no right to imprison her. Her brave and heartbroken belief in her own worth was compelling, and--truth be told, touched me deeply.

Which is why I am so very disappointed. Jane made me cry at that point, and there I could see what could have been achieved with this play. I cared deeply about her, about her struggle to find a place in the world where there was no place ready-made for her. That last scene made me care about what happened to her, grabbed my heart and squeezed it in a way nothing else in the play had done. And that was the tragedy.

See. My heart is not completely cold and dead. I didn't like this play, because it betrayed the heart of the story when it didn't have to. I didn't want to spend another hour and a half of my life checking my watch for the end of this play--a play that had willfully thrown away its many chances to create powerful emotional connections to this story. Staging a play can take the abstraction of language and make it visceral. This one could have done it, and didn't. Life is too short to stay for the second half of that.


Anonymous said...

The local news media could certainly use your talents!

Great review.

Nancy said...

I agree - great review. I especially like your comment: "Mistake #4--Too much plot." Many other adaptations of JE have made that mistake, including the Polly Teal version, IMO.

I hope you can come and see our JE in New York in Feb 2008 - complimentary tickets for you and Mr. Sweetie, of course.

Nancy McClernan

Cate Ross said...

I've been over to, and now I'm increasingly curious about what is going on there! Who is doing/has done the adaptation? Where are the pictures of the cast? How are you taking this subtle book and making it visual?

Inquiring minds want to know!

Nancy said...

Hey Cate,

Thanks for visiting!

I wrote the new adaptation. I've seen lots of different adaptations and many of them have the problems that you described in the Guthrie's version.

In most cases the problem is insufficient editing. In our version, we don't show Gateshead or Lowood at all, but have Jane describe it - somewhat like you suggested in your review.

Another thing that really bothers me about other adaptations is that often Bronte's language is not used. Of course you can't use all of it, but she has some wonderful turns of phrase that must be included, IMO.

We also need to get inside Jane's head. Our version does this by giving her monologues, which wouldn't work especially well in a film version, but does work on stage.

I am currently putting together casting info etc. Our show doesn't open until mid-February, so we still don't have lots of aspects of the show in place yet, but we're getting there.

In the meantime, you can see our Jane's info here:

And Rochester's info here:

You can read about me here:

We are an off-off Broadway group, so we don't have the resources that the Guthrie has. But I don't think that will impact our show negatively - in fact, because we don't have the production budget of a big theatre, we are forced to concentrate more on actors and dialog. I think that works in our favor for an intense story like JANE EYRE.

I hope you'll continue to visit the site, and if possible, come and see the show.