Eyre be trouble;Set play;Arts;Theatre;Features amp; Arts

19th November 1999 at 00:00
JANE EYRE. By Charlotte Bronte. Shared Experience Theatre Company.

The chief device of this telling of Bront 's famous story of the plain girl making good with the man she loves is to have two performers playing Jane. There's an outer self in sober clothing and another in a flame-red dress for the volatile girl who is locked in the attic - the "red room" - until she behaves.

The idea came to adapter and director Polly Teale as she reread the novel. "The heroine is so controlled, contained, severe. Yet the book starts with Jane in a fit of rage. She's described almost like an animal, a mad cat, who will only be released if she shows absolute stillness and submission."

Charlotte Bront herself was, says Teale, "Incredibly fiery but would punish herself for days after her outburst of temper. She was, I think, very frustrated and living at a time when a woman writing was considered almost as a sign of illness." Jane equals Charlotte, a fiery passionate nature inside a controlled exterior. The final chapter including the famous culmination of Jane's relationship with Rochester, "Reader, I married him," is notable for Teale as understatement, something arising from the two aspects of Charlotte's heroine. "As a small child Jane is crushed and humiliated and has to develop a protective armour."

This un-English temperament is there, too, in Bertha, the first Mrs Rochester. She is demonised as a foreign type, nymphomaniac, alcoholic. The novel, "is littered with allusions to foreign lands. The stories the Bront s wrote as children were all set in foreign lands invented from travelogues."

What of the novel's hero? "Rochester is wonderful: human and flawed. He's on the edge of being dislikable, proud, with fits of temper. Yet we get the sense of huge vulnerability, pain and passion underneath. The story's power is that we have these two very proud, prickly people (Rochester and Jane) who believe they are unlovable and are terrified of rejection, who fall in love with each other."

Dominating the stage in Teale's production is a staircase, spiralling up to the red room. "As in a dream the staircase starts solid and strong. As you go up it becomes fragmented and broken, spiralling into the unconscious until you reach the room at the top, a burnt-out shell, the locked room inside which are Jane and Bertha."

Timothy Ramsden

Guildford Yvonne Arnaud until November 20 (01483 440000), London New Ambassadors November 23-December 24 (0171 836 6111)

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