‘Jane Eyre’ was fiery.
With a climax that saw almost the entirety of QPAC’s Cremorne Theatre in flames, Shake & Stir Theatre Co. has presented a rendition of ‘Jane Eyre’ that was bright, fierce and compelling. Adapted by dynamic duo Nelle Lee and Nick Skubij, the piece placed emphasis on the role of women throughout history and made some intriguing writing choices that provided commentary on the misrepresented ‘crazy woman’ stereotype.
For those unfamiliar with the original text, written by Charlotte Brontë, the narrative follows the life and loss of young Jane Eyre in the mid-1800s. After overcoming a tragic upbringing, and facing her own difficulties in adulthood, Eyre is a strong woman. Simultaneously, her deep dedication to her faith and steadfast adherence to her own moral compass makes her somewhat of a solitary figure.
This adaptation remained honest to the neutrality of Jane’s character, a woman whose words and actions exemplify her independent mind, but whose tone and outward appearance suggests a drab and unemotive figure. A contradiction found in modern texts like ‘Twilight’ and ‘Hunger Games’, these strong female characters are presented in this neutral way in order to allow audiences and readers to place themselves in the character’s shoes and to more easily live the experience of the protagonist.
One of the striking choices in this production was to cast only four actors. The story spans many years, and Jane crosses paths with a range of people, however, with the exception of Nelle Lee, as Jane Eyre, the other three actors filled the remaining roles. It was a challenging undertaking in a 2.5-hour production, even for the most accomplished performer. Excluding a few tiny slips, the performers were able to showcase their incredible talent and diverse skill set.
A stagnant set became symbolic of the unchanging role of women up until the 1800s, and the metallic materials emphasised the Industrial Revolution taking place in the background of the story. Multiple levels, a circular staircase, and a large retractable curtain provided an adaptable set, embellished by clever lighting and strategic direction.
Michael Futcher incorporated an array of performance styles into this piece, with tightly choreographed scenes that moved the show through its extensive time span. When Jane attends school, earlier in the piece, the cast was placed in orderly lines and, using imagined props, raced through the rigid, repetitive and cyclical movements of the institution. Futcher’s most impressive feat was in his work with the technical team to bring the burning of Thornfield Hall to life. An unexpected element, but thoroughly striking to behold.
A questionable decision in this production was to make such explicit parallels between Jane and Mrs Fairfax. The notion of the ‘crazy woman’ in history is a disgraceful one and creating the link between a mistreated, mentally ill woman, and Jane was intriguing. Some interpretations may be that this highlights Jane’s sanity, further belittling Mrs Fairfax, others may see that it instead humanizes Mrs Fairfax by highlighting how easily Jane, with all of her traumatic childhood experiences, could just as easily have become her. An unnerving choice in an otherwise empowering piece.
Nelle Lee, in the lead role of Jane, was well cast. She was believable as a young Jane and fitting as the character matured. Lee successfully balanced the complex persona of Jane, playing true to the bland nature of the characters’ composure, without allowing this to become distracting. She maintained audience engagement by giving Jane moments of passionate outbursts. This was further supported by the directorial choice to have the ensemble speak Jane’s thoughts aloud. Lee delivered a resilient and self-assuring Jane, that audiences were able to connect with.
Sarah McLeod and Anthony Standish were masterful in the endless characters they portrayed. With differing accents, walks, and general dispositions, it often felt as if an entirely different performer were gracing the stage. Standish played rather dislikeable characters but was able to win audiences over by delivering lines of sincerity when needed. McLeod was able to showcase her musical compositions and vocal abilities, performing original pieces throughout the show and giving the story a much-needed soundscape. Her mature and raspy voice was both pleasant and eerie, fitting to the plot.
A stand out performance came from Helen Howard, who perhaps played the most roles of any other performer. Howard is an accomplished actress, and creative, with credits spanning many years. Her portrayal of characters ranging from evil to beloved was exceptional, and the ability to make so many distinct personas in such a short span of time was outstanding.
A story that lends itself to a message of female empowerment, ‘Jane Eyre’ has been adapted with a powerful comment on the role of women in history. The burning of Thornfield Hall parallels the fiery actions and words of Eyre and her fight for independence but also establishes the prelude to the oncoming fight for women’s rights of the latter part of the 19th century. Lee and Skubji’s ‘Jane Eyre’ was a successful stage adaptation that remained true to the original text.
Shake & Stir Theatre Co’s season of ‘Jane Eyre’ plays until Saturday, 9 November 2019 at the Cremorne Theatre, QPAC. For more information visit Shake & Stir Theatre Co’s website.