Lifeline Theatre. By Charlotte Brontë. Adapted by Christina Calvit. Directed by Dorothy Milne. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.
Theater review by Kevin Thomas
I would see a show at Lifeline Theatre simply for the design. William Boles's tall, narrow set for Jane Eyre begins with bone-white tree branches in the ceiling that descend to a two-level, skeletal scaffold representing the schools and manor homes of 19th-century England. The claustrophobic outer passages and the open inner stage let the action flow from intimate servants’ hallways to public sitting rooms, and allow Jane (Anu Bhatt) to peek in on the high society which she serves.
Christina Calvit's adaptation emphasizes that Jane Eyre was a gothic novel, eschewing the dreamier romantic aspects to focus on the spiritual realm and the unanswered questions that Jane contends with. It bypasses the story of her childhood, instead having three “ghosts” from the period—her aunt, her schoolmaster, and her best friend—follow her wherever she goes. Their judgements haunt her, yet also motivate her singular dedication to her independence and her true self. Bhatt’s Jane projects a strong woman that is, within, full of doubts and fears. As in the book she pulls double duty as heroine and narrator, which onstage is much to demand of a performance. It leaves Bhatt no time to breathe, and removes the possibility of a subtle or intimate portrayal.
While I may wish I felt closer to Jane as a character, I cannot deny that her convictions maintain the energy of the play, especially when opposite John Henry Robert’s Rochester. He’s gaunt, mercurial, and not at all a romantic lead—which is what makes him compelling in the role. Whether the pair should be together remains an open question, even knowing the ending. The question is not one of good or bad, but solely what is right for Jane Eyre. Even in his most charming mode, Roberts doesn’t let us forget their class differences, or their master-servant relationship.
The dedication of director Dorothy Milne to the gothic theme makes Jane Eyre a focused adaptation, which is so important when tackling a large work that doesn’t naturally lend itself to the stage. However, the gothic flourishes can also be distracting. Despite the sparse set, the staging is a noisy and busy affair with background spirits going to-and-fro and modern music occasionally cutting in. It fills space where an actor’s raw presence would normally hold our attention—and the cast is certainly capable of it, so the big displays are unnecessary.
If Lifeline’s great strength is in its staging, its occasional weakness is being too committed to the text. Aside from the ghosts of childhood past, Jane Eyre settles into a straightforward translation of the book. While parts are cut, what remains is not altered significantly. It leads to idiosyncrasies, like the origin of Rochester’s ward (played by the wonderfully bubbly Ada Grey) being unexplained; eventually she disappears from the play entirely. Other plotlines are rushed to include everything.
When Lifeline’s particular vision for the classic is emphasized, Jane Eyre becomes a proper literary experience: All the complexities of Jane’s life and the atmosphere of the novel are translated into sights, sounds, and emotions in front of us.