by Brenda W. Clough
The latest trend in theater is filming a performance, and then showing the film. Most of the time they don’t do this — it’s difficult enough to get paying butts into the seats in the theater, never mind for a copy on the big screen. But there are productions that sell out in nanoseconds — Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet, or Frankenstein. Most of the human race never had a chance to grab a ticket, and in any case it involves going to London. And even when Cumberbatch has moved on, the theater can still make money from his performances. So occasionally these films do arrive in the art movie houses.
I would have bet that Jane Eyre, which ran in London’s National Theater last year, wasn’t popular enough for this treatment. But, hurray! It is making the rounds of arty movie theaters, and I was able to see it! This production is different from most of the movies — it’s truly theatrical, created on the stage in an improvisational process. It got dynamite reviews when it was first staged in two parts in Bristol, and when they moved it to London they pared it down to a mere three hours. Again the production was a hit, and even flattened out on film, you can feel it.
What is fascinating is the key decision: what to cut? Because you can’t possibly get an entire Victorian novel up onto the screen or the stage. Interestingly, the director insisted on keeping in Jane’s grotty childhood. Most of the movies and TV productions you’ve seen save time by losing that, and beginning with Jane’s arrival at Thornfield — cutting to the romantic chase. This stage production gets it — that the entire story is rooted in how Jane was formed back at Gateshead and Lowood.
And the other decision is what to keep or to put in. The National Theater production gives Bertha Mason a voice, and it’s thrilling. And Pilot the dog nearly steals the entire show — not only should you never be on stage with a dog, you should never be on stage with an actor playing a dog. This was clearly a wonderful production, very theatrical in the best sense of the word, and yes, it does transfer to the screen. See this if you can, it’s worth the money — and tons cheaper than going to London!