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Q&A: Sally Cookson on bringing her stripped back Jane Eyre to Norwich

PUBLISHED: 09:05 17 July 2017 | UPDATED: 09:07 17 July 2017

NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017 ensemble. Photo by BrinkhoffM�genburg

NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017 ensemble. Photo by BrinkhoffM�genburg

Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

The 170th anniversary of the first publication of Jane Eyre sees Sally Cookson’s imaginative stripped staging of Jane Eyre, which won rave reviews at the National Theatre, visit Norwich Theatre Royal.

Tim Delap (Rochester) Nadia Clifford (Jane Eyre) NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg Tim Delap (Rochester) Nadia Clifford (Jane Eyre) NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg

What inspired you to adapt and direct Jane Eyre? Is it a book you particularly admired?

I chose this particular title because it’s a story that I love and have enjoyed a close relationship with ever since I was intrigued as a child by Orson Well’s black and white melodrama with fabulous music by Bernard Hermann. I didn’t actually read the novel until I was in my early twenties - and I remember thinking while I read it: ‘this is a clarion cry for equal opportunities for women not a story about a passive female who will do anything for her hunky boss’. I was struck by how modern Jane seemed - her spirit and strong will, her peculiar and brilliant mind striving for personal freedom to be who she is, lashing out against any constraint that prevents her from being herself. She was exactly the sort of person I wanted to be.

How did the process of devising and directing the play work?

NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017 ensemble. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017 ensemble. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg

Adapting a novel for the stage is a challenging prospect - especially when that novel is cited as many people’s favourite of all time. It is always daunting when you’re working on a story which everyone knows so well, because you want to surprise and maybe challenge people’s expectations, without losing any of the things which make them like the story in the first place. Our job has been to turn it from a book into a piece of theatre. Essentially that means creating something new - the experience of reading a book is very different to watching a play. Rather than approach the novel as a piece of costume drama, I was keen to explore the themes and get to the heart of the story and characters in a theatrical way. I didn’t want authentic set and period costume to suffocate it, killing the essence and magic of the story.

What do you think are the main themes of the story?

Re-reading the book now, I’m struck by the weight the novel places on individual human rights. Jane understands from a very early age that in order to thrive she needs to be nourished - not just physically but emotionally, spiritually and intellectually. These basic human needs are central to our well being and Jane has a fundamental understanding of this. I like to think of it as a Life story rather than a Love story (the original title was Jane Eyre - an Autobiography) which sees Jane develop from a powerless child into an independent, free-thinking adult. But, like any fine piece of writing, Jane Eyre is multi faceted and it seems that whoever you are and whatever your age, each reader will gain something slightly different from it.

How do you think that the story resonates in today’s society and today’s audiences?

Firstly, it is a superb story - a real page turner, with a protagonist who you root for from the start. Secondly, despite the fact that it was written 170 years ago it deals with all the things we still find ourselves struggling with - ‘where do I fit in, who am I’? The intensity of the novel’s search for identity is something we have all experienced. Surrounding the heroine are characters grappling with their own individual identity crises. I don’t think there is one character who is not struggling in some way to come to terms with their circumstances and wrestling with the very idea of what it is to be human. Whether it’s Rochester or Helen Burns, Mrs Reed or Blanche Ingram, St John Rivers or Bertha Mason - all these characters are flailing around in an attempt to discover/come to terms with who they are. In the middle is Jane taking responsibility for her life and always taking action to change her circumstances when her integrity is in danger of being threatened.

Nadia Clifford (Jane Eyre) NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg Nadia Clifford (Jane Eyre) NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg

Can you tell us something about the staging?

I would describe it as an ensemble piece - performed by seven actors and three musicians. Apart from the actor who plays Jane, the actors play more than one part and are all onstage most of the time. The set which is a wooden structure made up of platforms, ramps and ladders is far from a literal interpretation of the Victorian period - it has a minimalist simplicity but provides the actors with a playground on which to perform and illustrate the physical and emotional struggle Jane encounters as she develops from a child into an independent woman. The band are placed in the centre of the set - I wanted the music to be central as it is intrinsic to the production. Benji Bower, the composer, uses a variety of genres including folk, Jazz, sacred, orchestral and pop to create the world Jane inhabits.

Have you visited the Bronte Parsonage in Howarth?

Hannah Bristow, Evelyn Miller, Lynda Rooke NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg Hannah Bristow, Evelyn Miller, Lynda Rooke NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg

Yes - more than once. In 1991 I stayed in Haworth for a couple of weeks when I was working at the Alhambra theatre in Bradford, it was early Spring and the village was almost deserted. I visited it again before I started rehearsals for Jane Eyre with my family - we could hardly move for the crowds and I wondered what Charlotte Bronte would have made of it all?

• Jane Eyre, Norwich Theatre Royal, July 17-22, 7.30pm, 2.30pm July 19/22, £27.50-£8, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

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