By Charlotte Brontë. Adapted by Nellie Lee and Nick Skubij. shake and stir theatre company – on Tour. Riverside Theatre Parramatta. 31 Aug – 1 Sept, 2022
Reviewed : 31 August, 2022*
shake and stir’s adaptations are always thrilling, always respectful! They stick to the story. The characters are true to their creator. The set and lighting are just as atmospheric as the written descriptions. Seldom are adaptations so faithful to the original. But shake and stir have assembled a formidable ensemble to create their adaptations.
Writers Nellie Lee and Nick Skubij team up again to re-imagine Charlotte Brontë’s late 19th century novel in a play that omits neither the rejection and poverty of Jane Eyre’s sad childhood, the romance and tragedy of her later adventures nor the places and characters that populate her life. Firstly, Gateshead Hall where she is bullied by her wicked aunt Sarah Reed and her nasty cousin John and locked in the ‘red room’ where she thinks she sees the ghost of her dead uncle. Then Lowood Institution, the gloomy orphanage run by Mr Brocklehurst where Jane endures eight long years. Finally, the gothic grandeur of Thornfield Hall, where Jane meets the gentle Mrs Fairfax, the moody Mr Rochester, his French ward Adele and eventually his mad first wife, Bertha Mason.
That they do so in a production that requires only four actors is a rare feat.
Enter director Michael Futcher, who deftly blocks the production so that changes in character are clearly defined by accent, stance or the addition of a small item of costume. Futcher respects the talent and training of his cast and their commitment to work with him to re-create Brontë’s characters. He also respects the intelligence of his audience! He knows they will follow when a freeze or a brief lighting snap changes a scene effectively – especially on a set that is designed to accommodate a range of spaces and levels.
Josh McIntosh’s versatile grey, gothic set becomes the dreaded places where Jane lives her early life – and the melancholy grandeur of Thornfield Hall. Muti-levels reached by dim stairways are draped and framed by long grey curtains that shiver eerily in whispery breezes. Sarah McLeod’s original, gothic-sounding compositions echo as she sings at a piano and almost hidden in the shadowy curves, accentuated by Jason Glenwright’s moody lighting and the sounds of sudden storms or teeming rain created by Guy Webster. In this production Michael Steer the adds fiery stage effects that are so essential to Brontë’s macabre tale.
Four actors – Julian Garner, Nellie Lee, Jodie Le Vesconte and Sarah McLeod – and three swings – Maddison Burridge, Hilary Harrison and Nick James – people McIntosh’s dark stage. Together they are taking the production to 39 venues across the country. They play over thirteen characters in a production that sees them dressed in drab grey lifted only by two touches of dull red, a beige cravat, a plain white wedding dress and a flimsy veil. Geared to accommodate the ubiquitous threat of Covid, each of the swings is ready to step in and take over at any time – and they do, seamlessly. That well does this ensemble and their crew work together.
In their publicity notes shake and stir suggest that “Never has the story of this fiercely passionate young woman on a voyage of self-discovery been more timely. In the wake of #metoo, women all over the world have rediscovered their voice and spoken up – demanding that which should have always been theirs” … just as Jane did!
Jane Eyre is regarded as one as one of the original feminist works. Jane’s honesty and integrity shines through in this production – as does her compassion as she saves Rochester from a fire, champions his vicious, mad, incarcerated wife … and returns to marry him after the horrific fire that blazes through McIntosh’s set, sending Bertha Mason falling to her death and leaving Rochester maimed and sightless.
This production will be remembered in images of high grey scaffold-like levels, shadows and flickering flames and a heartless society based on rigid beliefs and cruel classism. And images of a courageous young woman determined to stay true to herself.
Seeing this production will benefit students studying both English and Drama. The former will be able to compare and contrast the text and the adaptation. The latter will see a variety of theatrical styles from Gothic Theatre to Magical Realism. They’ll see fine characterisation and ensemble acting – and just how creative multi-discipline theatre can be.