Not content with staging Chris Bush’s lucid new adaptation of Jane Eyre, the Stephen Joseph theatre is throwing on a whole Brontë festival. On the streets of Scarborough, Lisa Cagnacci’s audio walking tour gives you a blast of constitutional sea air before leading you up the hill to Anne Brontë’s grave. Back in the theatre, there are film screenings, children’s play sessions and, on Thursday, a brilliant lecture on Charlotte Brontë by Sassy Holmes of the Brontë Parsonage Museum.
She makes connections between Jane Eyre and Taylor Swift’s Invisible String by way of Cary Joji Fukunaga’s 2011 movie, before picking apart the protofeminist significance of the oft-quoted “Reader, I married him”.
She also points out that, in Zoë Waterman’s fluid production, Eleanor Sutton plays not only the lead role but also Bertha Mason, the mad woman in the attic. It is as if Bertha is a projection of Jane’s animal nature; less a character than a symbol of repressed instinct. In this Beauty and the Beast narrative, it isn’t only the untamed Edward Rochester who must conquer his demons.
Elsewhere, this Jane Eyre is in control – so much so that when Bush’s adaptation kicks off at too brisk a pace, Jane stops the show and insists on a rewind. She is a woman determined to be at the heart of her own story. “I must have action,” she tells Sam Jenkins-Shaw’s Rochester. “And if I cannot find it, I will make it.”
That makes her relationship with Rochester all the more gripping. Sutton, with her hair pinned back and eyes heavy, has a plain-speaking severity. Not until after the interval does she allow herself a proper smile. In her grey dress, she is an austere match for Jenkins-Shaw in his dark coat and high boots. He is similarly direct, but behind his bluntness lies an intelligence to match hers. For all Rochester’s faults, Jenkins-Shaw makes him seem worthy of Jane’s attentions.
The in-the-round staging is light on its feet, the six-strong ensemble playing multiple parts, frequently carrying a musical instrument as they go. Simon Slater’s wistful folk tunes intercut the action, allowing moments of reflection in a brooding study of morality and desire.