Hong Kong Arts Festival
A Gothic novel from the 19th century is transformed into an avant-garde stage production exploring class, rebellion, religion, familial relationships, and gender inequality. How will two different people react to the same play?
Michael Taylor and Sarah Feather attend a theatrical performance of Jane Eyre, which is based on a Victorian novel that he read recently, and she read years ago.
Will a man and a woman react differently to a play that explores gender inequality and other key issues?
And what will they make of the contemporary updating – and innovative staging – of story set in Victorian England?
Keep reading to find out in this first edition of “He Says, She Says”!
He Says, She Says …
Two old friends with different backgrounds attend a matinee performance of Jane Eyre on 20 February 2016.
She is English, and he is American. She read the book years ago and enjoyed it immensely, which is why she wanted to see the play.
He loves theatre and read the book in preparation for seeing the play.
Will the play resonate with a modern audience? Some say it has a feminist theme. Others disagree. Will a man and a woman react differently?
He Says: ‘Stellar Performance!’
The singular set for this production of Jane Eyre was a wooden and steel superstructure comprising platforms, ramps, steps, and ladders – certainly not the Victorian drawing room I was expecting.
It was left to the audience to infer where, exactly, events were taking place based on context. It vaguely reminded me of Chinese opera, whose sets are usually nothing more than a back drop and a table.
To take the analogy a step further, in Chinese opera, a gesture of the hand or turning in a circle or walking with a certain cadence can indicate to the audience that a character is changing clothes, opening a door, or riding a horse.
These cues are highly stylized, and – if you’re not familiar with them – you wouldn’t have a clue what was going on. But to Chinese audiences they make perfect sense because they grow up with the genre.
With such bare bone sets and props as those employed in this interpretation of Jane Eyre, the director managed to convey scene changes without changing the set as well as travelling in a train, in a carriage, and on horseback without so much as a single prop.
Rather than using sounds effects, storms were portrayed through music, percussion, and creative lighting. Creative lighting was also able to suggest the warming of one’s hands in front of a fireplace and the conflagration that laid ruin to a Victorian mansion.
In terms of characterization, several members of the cast played multiple roles, and there was no need for a change in costume.
They simply morphed from one character into the next, and at times they became Jane’s inner demons – the voices talking in her head as she struggled with a difficult decision.
Even the dog Pilot, a mere cameo in the novel, was amusingly and lovingly portrayed by the same actor that played two other roles. No dog suit needed here!
One of the first surprises came early in the play, when Jane arrived at her all-girls boarding school and at least one of her classmates was played by a man with a full beard. Forget the gender issue, even a boy of that age would never be able to grow facial hair.
The gender-bending continued later in the play when a male role was played by a very girlish female actress.
Gender inequality is one of the many themes explored in the novel. Was this the director’s attempt at evening the score? Class obviously enters into the equation. What about ageism?
Perhaps there’s another, more inclusive theme that goes beyond class and gender and age. Jane is a woman with two suitors. She has a choice.
And she chooses the man less handsome. She understands the superficiality of outward appearances. She follows her heart rather than her eye.
Is that why the director cast a middle aged actor with a beard in the role of a prepubescent 10-year-old girl – and a very girlish actress in the role of a middle aged man?
I was captivated from the start. Even before the cast took to the stage, I was fascinated by the set. I enjoyed the way a fully grown woman crying like a newly born baby represented the birth of the protagonist in the first scene.
There would be no need to start with a young actress playing the part of Jane in her childhood followed by an older actress playing her in her teenage years.
The musical score helped to advance the plot, and the lighting was superb. But the play did drag a bit at spots – especially in the second half.
I dozed off during a particularly annoying soliloquy by Saint John, wondering when in the world they would cut to the chase.
Overall, however, it was a stellar performance, even if I did, at times, have difficulty understanding the Yorkshire accents.
On several occasions I actually had to consult the Chinese subtitles, which were shown to the sides of the stage, because I couldn’t make out what the people on the stage were saying.
I am glad that I first read the book because it helped me fill in some of the missing pieces. If I hadn’t, I’m afraid, I might have been almost as bewildered at times as I am when trying to make heads or tails out of Chinese opera.
But not quite …
She Says: ‘Fantastic Stuff!’
I have few opportunities to enjoy live theatre so was thrilled to hear that Jane Eyre was to be part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival this year.
I was intrigued to see how an old classic favourite would be condensed into a theatre setting whilst retaining the feeling of the whole novel.
I had expected it would be something of a period piece and was initially startled by the stark set, which featured a wooden platform and little else.
I also wasn’t impressed by the opening scene, which had a wailing adult Jane crying like a baby. I found it jarring.
As I did the use of bearded men playing the roles of the other girls at Lowood School. I was thinking, “Ho hum! A bit too modern for me!”
Music and Choreography
By this point, however, I was already becoming captivated by the use of music and choreography to move the story along and the truly brilliant cast.
Particularly effective was the cast jogging away to percussion as stage coach transitions from scene to scene.
The set also turned out to be an excellent device, and its simplicity was used to create some striking images – turning the Red Room red, for example.
The music was crucial to the pacing of the story, and Melanie Marshall as Bertha Mason wove the play together almost seamlessly.
“Mad About the Boy” was fabulous, but the final scene where she breaks into Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” as Jane seeks Rochester utterly stole my heart.
Truly an Ensemble
The pacing wasn’t perfect, but I later read the play was initially written as two separate performances and later condensed into one.
The cast was truly an ensemble. They all gave very strong performances (and I loved the Yorkshire accents).
I came away thinking it was an innovative and daring production that captured the essence of the novel (no mean feat), transforming it into a visual and moving experience that came full circle, beginning and ending with the lines, “It’s a girl!”
Sarah Feather lives in Macau. She is an occasional contributor to the Accidental Travel Writer. Michael Taylor lives in Hong Kong. He is publisher of the Accidental Travel Writer.
A theatrical production of Charlotte Bronte’s coming of age novel, “Jane Eyre”, adapted by Bristol Old Vic and the National Theatre of Great Britain, was presented at the 44th Hong Kong Arts Festival at the Lyric Theatre of the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts on 18, 19, and 20 February 2016.
Jane Eyre was played by Madeleine Worrall, Edward Rochester by Felix Hayes. Some members of the cast played multiple roles.
Mrs Reed and Mrs Fairfax, for example, were both played by Maggie Tagney. Mr Brocklehurt, Richard Mason, and the dog Pilot were all played by Craig Edwards. Bessie Lee, Blanche Ingram, and Diana Rivers were all played by Simone Saunders.
The play was directed by Sally Cookson. A musical score was commissioned for the piece, which premiered in 2014. The four performances in Hong Kong have been the only overseas performances of the play so far.