Most theatre adaptations of sprawling costume epics shoot themselves in the foot, with scripts sunk by characters cramming in narration of offstage events and historical context.
Direct-address exposition lets your massive tomes – your Pride and Prejudices, your Gone With the Winds – fit onstage, but it’s reliably dull monologuing (“This happened, then this happened, then THIS happened”) short on character development, conflict or passion.
The great success of Julie Beckman’s adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 coming-of-age story is the twist given to this clunky convention: putting it in the third person. Kept largely in-scene (as opposed to describing background events), every character – not just the leads – has a stab at articulating the events flowing around them, the nature of their own activities. For example:
“Having secured the reins, the man immediately mounted the beast,” Rochester says as he does so.
It seems like a slight shift in writing, but the effect is enormous. Yes, sometimes it’s tiresome business. More often, the shared narration gives room for a playful supporting cast to flesh out roles, letting Brontë’s lords, ladies and lackeys pitch their preferred vision of themselves to the audience. (Well-earned spotlight time for actors who normally only get a layer of sweat for their dozen costume changes.)
And sometimes it’s something more than that. Sometimes, when characters sense the fragility of their attempts to describe their lives, the narration becomes a wonderful layer of existential grappling that draws out the heart of Jane Eyre. This is, after all, a story about an English orphan’s journey toward self-knowledge and finding her place in the world.
These moments almost always come care of Jennifer Dzialoszynski’s intelligent, restrained Jane. Avoiding the pitfall of playing overly sentimental romance, Dzialoszynski keeps the mammoth production moving while maintaining an emotional availability she can dip into sparingly, judiciously and effectively.
That, along with some sweet theatrical inventiveness from director Tracey Flye and cast, is Jane Eyre at its best. It’s a shame when the last quarter devolves to a Series of Rapidly Unfolding Events, rushing to put a bow on the story. There’s also a definite, well, creep factor to the romance. No fault of Dzialoszynski or Tim Campbell’s Edward Rochester, but the power imbalance that already exists between Lord and governess isn’t helped by roughly 16 inches, 100 pounds and a number of years difference. Love, Actually critics be warned.
But in the end, the team behind Jane Eyre win the day with their craft (and obvious love) of storytelling. And love wins, too. In case you were concerned.
By Charlotte Brontë
Adapted by Julie Beckman
John Hirsch Stage (MTC)
Through February 1
Directed by Tracey Flye; with Tim Campbell, Julia Course, Jennifer Dzialoszynski, Meguire McRae-King, Meaghan Moloney, Miriam Smith, Gordon Tanner, Charlene Van Buekenhout and Jeremy Walmsley; set and costume design by Michael Gianfrancesco; lighting design by Kimberly Purtell; composition and musical direction by Nicky Phillips; sound design by John Bent Jr.; stage managed by Evan R. Klassen; assistant stage managed by Leslie Sidley; apprentice stage managed by Alison Fulmyk; child supervision by Matthew Lagacé.
Matthew TenBruggencate is a Winnipeg-based writer. He is owned by two cats. Follow him @tenbruggencate, where is he spreading nasty rumours about you.