Plain, but not simple

Is Charlotte Bronte's heroine too priggish for modern readers? Heather Neill hears about a stageinterpretation that explores the dark side of Jane's personality

A number of adaptors have attempted to produce an actable version of Charlotte Bront 's most famous novel. Bob Carlton, directing at the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch, says that he found the version written by Polly Teale for the Shared Experience company to be the most satisfying and truest to the original.

Teale has taken one daring step which colours the whole adaptation. She has made explicit Jane's psychological journey by presenting Bertha, Rochester's wild, incarcerated wife, as an aspect of Jane herself as well as a character in her own right. She is onstage from the earliest period of Jane's experience, when she is locked in the red room as a child. We are to understand that she represents the repressed side of Jane's nature, acting out what is in her mind.

"Yes, this is a modern take on the novel," says Bob Carlton, "but when you read it you can't but admire Jane's stoicism against the social and religious background of her time." There is, he admits, one disadvantage to this approach: "When you read the book, there is a thriller element - the noises in the night at Thornfield Hall, the appearance of Grace Poole - and you don't find out until Jane's wedding day about the mad woman in the attic. That thriller element is not there in the adaptation because you are always aware of Bertha being there."

But this is, he thinks, a small price to pay: "While Jane is reacting in a stoical, demure way, we can see her true emotions. Bertha Mason is the dark side of Jane Eyre."

Despite this daring innovation, Carlton thinks Teale's version the closest available to Charlotte Bront 's original and therefore helpful to students. When it was first produced by Shared Experience one reviewer described it as "like a great speed-read of the novel".

Nothing important is omitted, including early childhood scenes and the episode with St John Rivers, the missionary who asks Jane to marry him. "It is called Jane Eyre: an autobiography so it is important to include her childhood. There are times when her early life explains why she accepts certain things. She experiences death, loss and suffering early and morality is knocked into her - literally - from the beginning. All this explains her stoicism; she could, after all, have made the easy choice and stayed with Rochester as his mistress when his marriage was revealed."

Some young modern readers might find Jane priggish, but Carlton says she is simply someone who knows her own mind. "She has a strong sense of morality, but it is not necessarily a conventional one; she believes in natural justice."

After Jane's rejection of Rochester, she spends some time with the Rivers family - an episode often cut in screen and stage adaptations, being seen as irrelevant to the main narrative: Jane and Rochester ultimately finding each other. But Carlton says this section is necessary to understand the nature of Jane's feelings for Rochester. "He is the first great love of her life and she is a plain girl, yet she rejects him. She might have been tempted to accept Rivers - a good, handsome man - but she realises that what he means by love is not what she and Rochester felt for each other. She admires him, but she says no. Jane is a passionate person."

At the end of the story, when Jane and Rochester are reconciled, after Bertha's death in the fire at Thornfield, their relationship will be a very different one. She has always called him master, always felt she had little to offer him. Now, blind and without his former physical power, he will rely on her. Carlton says: "She feels she can be a true partner. She will be his eyes."

Finally, would he say that Jane Eyre is a "girls' book"? "I didn't read it as a child because I thought so, but no, I wouldn't say it's a girls' book; it's a remarkable, picaresque adventure".

* A new version of Jane Eyre by Sue Pomeroy for the Good Company will tour widely from November 5. Ms Pomeroy says she intends to serve Charlotte Bront 's vision "to get inside Jane Eyre's thinking, and therefore Charlotte's".

Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch from September 27 to October 19 Tickets tel: 01708 443333 Good CompanyTel: 01273 606652

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