Opening night at Book-It's production of Jane Eyre was a memorable experience. The place was bustling with an activity and vibrancy synonymous with champagne, cupcakes, and opening night.
The play began with a girl, Jane, holding a candle in the dark and singing an eerie song —replicating the Gothic Romanticism portrayed in Brontë’s novel. As the night progressed, full and rich with English accents, the story switched perspectives from the first, second, and third person. Parts of the show embodied Brontë’s novel, with characters even quoting iconic lines, like “Reader, I married him.”
Jane Eyre was originally a book written by Charlotte Brontë and published in 1847. The “autobiography” claimed to have been edited by Currer Bell, but in actuality, Currer Bell was just Brontë’s alias. It is speculated that Jane’s story is actually an autobiography of sorts since many aspects of Jane’s life overlap with Charlotte’s. A popular claim is that the book is Brontë’s autobiography—not in the capacity of its story, but through the experiences shared between her and Jane: the traumas and the triumphs.
And so, the story unfolded.
Jane’s own family, her Aunt Reid and cousins, held a severe distaste for her presence and general existence. She was shut down, her confidence broken. To them, she was solely a poor, irrelevant burden of an orphan girl.
Jane held an inferiority complex when it came to her superiors, due to both her opportunities and societal role as an orphan. In Book-It's production, Jane (played by actress Mi Kang) was shorter than the other cast members, which helped portray Jane as ‘below’ the other characters, enriching the themes of isolation. Her deceased parents, and lack of money, paired with the hate cast by her family, created a character ripe with anguish and fire.
However, Jane’s younger years seamlessly trickled into her adulthood, as she soon became a governess for Mr. Rochester at Thornfield Hall.
Mi Kang and Ross Destiche in Jane Eyre at Book-It Repertory Theatre. Photo by Alabastro Photography.
Governess! So much power! And politics! Well…not exactly. In the 1800’s, governesses were middle-class women hired by the upper-class to raise and teach children in a household. During this time there was a sharp social divide between the classes, and it would have been distasteful for a woman of the middle class to work alongside the lower class folk in factories and such. So, middle-class women were left to either teach or become governesses, as Jane did.
Soon, Jane and Mr. Rochester developed a liking for each other. We could see their desire for each other through their longing looks and longer-than-usual touches. The extremely cute scene where Rochester almost calls Jane “my love,” but doesn't, is especially noteworthy. Their love develops, as does the tale, and we soon meet Bertha Mason—Roch’s “madwoman” of an ex-wife, who is being kept hidden in the attic.
Bertha, an almost creature-like woman, portrayed her enigmatic animosity through piercing shrieks and violent movements. Her character subtly represented the jealousy embodied in Jane regarding Rochester. When Jane was jealous of Rochester’s desire for another woman, Bertha was the one who set fire to his bed. But Bertha’s existence also bears weight on society through its commentary on mental health. Brontë cast Bertha in a negative light, quarantined and dehumanized because of her “madness.” The show exemplified Brontë’s ideas similarly through acting choices, like those of Bertha’s candor and physical appearance (that of a sickly insane woman). Also, like in the book, Bertha’s history was fairly hidden, and aside from revealing a few facts regarding her lineage and previous sanity, she was made to be an animal not allowed to dwell in society. It would have been promising if the theater had redefined Brontë’s destructive and isolating conceptions of mental health. The audience could have been enlightened about the realities of living with, and caring for someone diagnosed with a mental health disorder. But this show decided to play out the tale like that of the book.
Though the overall tale was depicted accurately to Brontë’s novel, I do wish that Book-It's adaptation had taken more creative license in touching on the mental health of Bertha Mason, rather than abiding by Brontë’s bound-for-death character. Yet the interpretation of Jane’s early life invoked a sense of suffering to which patrons could sympathize with. And the audience was able to understand the development of Jane through her experiences in the world, and in her society. The show succeeded in Jane’s representation of a passionate heroine in control of her destiny, reminding the audience that they too are in control of theirs.
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