Of course the book is better. A play just can’t capture Charlotte Bronte’s irresistible prose or parallel the particular Jane Eyre and brooding Mr. Rochester born of each reader’s imagination. But can theatre reflect the essence of a literary masterpiece or even convince the Bronte virgin to climb into bed with a classic? Sure. Unfortunately, the United Players’ production of Jane Eyre does neither.
Although this production veers off course at many junctions, director Tom Kerr can’t be faulted for choosing Polly Teale’s adaptation. Teale’s interpretation of Jane Eyre employs Bertha (a secondary character in Bronte’s novel) to explore Jane’s wild alter ego which is the inevitable result of repressed Victorian society. Nonetheless, Kerr and movement consultants Adam Henderson and Mikal Grant hinder this thematic undercurrent by limiting Bertha (Julia Henderson) to clunky, slow-motion sequences which belabour the production’s pace. Actress Julia Henderson is subsequently sentenced to every actor’s nightmare: pretentious interpretive dance.
Kerr’s production goes on to blur other vital aspects of Jane’s experience. Above all, the greatest disappointment is a complete lack of chemistry between Jane Eyre (played here by Roselle Healy) and her elusive love interest, Mr. Rochester (Tariq Leslie). As Jane, Healy gets off to a good start, astutely capturing her character’s childhood impishness. (When asked how she’ll avoid hell, the ten-year-old Jane replies, “I must keep in good health and not die.”) Healy’s performance loses steam, however, as the character reaches adulthood; not only does she fail to deliver Jane’s irresistible spark but Healy also doesn’t wholly communicate Jane’s infallible love for Mr. Rochester. As the gentleman in question, Tariq Leslie fares only slightly better. Often his upper class Rochester errs on the side of a little too crusty, leaving audience members to question Jane’s romantic inclination.
This production is not without highlights. Kate Gordon delivers strong performances in various roles and Missy Cross is delicious as Rochester’s precocious French ward, Adele. Also, Kerr’s staging sometimes succeeds in animating the novel’s best moments. One such instance finds a young Jane branded with Lowood School’s precursor to the scarlet letter - a large sign featuring the clumsily scrawled title “LIAR.” Kerr brings great heart and humour to this scene as a rather sheepish Jane stands isolated on a chair to face heckling from surrounding schoolmates.
Had the United Players’ Jane Eyre featured more of such high points and fewer obstacles (including clumsy background slides and floor-bound blocking invisible to most audience members), the production could have succeeded on the whole. As is, this mounting misses both its literary and theatrical mark.