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Sally Cookson – Reimagining Jane Eyre

“It's a girl!” These are the first words uttered in Sally Cookson's audacious staging of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte's taboo-busting 1847 novel concerning the book's eponymous heroine's journey from headstrong orphan to an independent woman living and loving on her own terms. Those words may not be lifted from Bronte's story, but in a production that uses music, movement and theatrical spectacle as key tools in telling a similarly multi-faceted story, the words bring Jane kicking and screaming into the world with a sense of purpose that suggests that, while her sex is important in everything she does, she is much more besides.

“Jane Eyre was a story I'd been interested in turning into a piece of theatre for a long time,” says Cookson,who first created the play in 2014. “When I first read Bronte's novel as a young woman in my twenties, I was struck by the power of this woman who knew what she needed to do to have a satisfying life, be that physically or emotionally. Whenever she's threatened with having to take a different path, she takes action. It's a play about human rights, really, and Jane is a role model, not just for women, but for men as well in what is this incredible coming of age story.”

In taking Bronte's story off the page and reimagining it for the stage, Cookson knew she didn't want to go down the glossy heritage industry route which has too often rendered Bronte's key work as little more than a romantic costume drama. With class, gender politics and the restraints of religious morality all in the mix, Cookson wanted to produce something with more substance.

“I knew the story from the BBC adaptations that I used to watch, and I was a fan of that,” she says, “but it wasn't until I actually read the book that I realised what a powerhouse Jane was. Then going back to the 1970s TV version, it concentrated on the story as a romance, when in fact Jane is this incredibly strong character who wants to live a life that's rich and full of opportunity. That was inspiring.”

Rather than beginning with an existing script, Cookson began with just the book, devising the show over extended workshopping with a company that ended up with a cast of fifteen actors and musicians onstage.

“Everyone gets very scared when there's no script,” Cookson admits. “We played around with a few ideas that we used as building blocks, but otherwise we sat round in a circle with the book in the middle of us and responded to it as we went through it. That was exciting and thrilling, but it was also very hard. A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into making that show. The fact that Jane Eyre is cited as the finest book of all time made it doubly challenging, but I knew I absolutely didn't want to turn it into a piece of costume drama. I wanted to find the best elements to tell the story, whether that was through music, movement or text.

“One of the hardest things was looking at all these conversations between Jane and Rochester, which go on for thirty pages. There are so many great lines in there, but we knew that if we just let them talk for thirty pages that it wouldn't have worked.”

When Cookson's staging was first seen, it was presented in two parts. When it was remounted at the National Theatre in London it was seen as one continuous epic. This is the case too for the show's current UK tour, which coincides with the 170th anniversary of the first publication of Bronte's mould-breaking novel.

“It's still epic,” says Cookson, “and having the opportunity to hone things and cut out the flab has been a fascinating process.”

For all Cookson and her team have breathed fresh life into Bronte's story, its essence of a woman taking charge of her own destiny in a man's world remains.

“The fact that the protagonist of the story is a girl is very important,” Cookson says, “especially at the time it was written. Jane has no money, no power and no place in society, but she was still determined to make her way in the world on her own terms. The opportunities a girl had in 1847 are very different to the opportunities a girl might have today, and what Jane achieves is extraordinary.”

Cookson also sees the story in broader terms beyond Jane's experience.

“I think more of it as a life story than a love story,” she says. “The original title of the book was Jane Eyre – An Autobiography, after all, and in it we see how from a very early age Jane needs nourishment. She hungers for these basic human needs, and she does everything within her power to live the life that she wants to live, and that's something I think that speaks to everybody.”

Jane Eyre, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, May 15-20; Theatre Royal, Glasgow, June 5-10; His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, August 28-September 2.

Commissioned by John Good and Co as programme notes for the tour of Bristol Old Vic's production of Jane Eyre, April 2017.

ends

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