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  • Flora Gosling

Review: Jane Eyre (Bard in the Botanics)

Brontë in the park fails to leave a mark

Next to me, three women in fold-out chairs are trying to discreetly open a bottle of bubbly during a romantic exchange between Jane and Rochester. I am as thrilled by the tension as I am appalled by the etiquette, and thankfully they pull it off without causing a stir. We owe our attention to the tender scene before us, but Jane Eyre is not known for its dramatic moments (bar its famous reveal). With the distant threats of thunder, varying degrees of comfort on the grassy slope, and picnic treats at our feet, it is hard to stop one’s attention from slipping. We may be having fewer sunny days this summer than we enjoyed last year, but a good performance from Bard in the Botanics is well worth busting out the brollies and the bug spray.

This is Jennifer Dick’s adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel, which tells the story of poor, orphaned Jane (Stephanie McGregor), who is sent from the stately home of her hateful aunt to a strict boarding school and grows up to become a governess falling for her wealthy and brooding employer before discovering his terrible secret. In the first half, Jane is much put upon by everyone around her and becomes terrible company as a result. Every line is either an insult against her or her complaining about being insulted. But the same is true of the novel, so one can hardly blame McGregor or Dick for that. As Jane matures McGregor eases into the role. She’s modest, independent, and carries Jane’s childhood weariness for even the safest of surroundings. Johnny Panchaud is similarly strong as Rochester. His performance consists mostly of sulking sexily around the stage just as every Victorian teenage reader imagined him, but he isn’t afraid to let his distress get ugly when the scene calls for it. There are titters in the audience as his voice breaks, but it is impressively vulnerable nonetheless.

Photo Credit: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Dick’s biggest change as an adaptation is the setting, which is now in rural Scotland. The sprinkling of Scots language and the warm brown and greens of Heather Grace Currie’s design embodies everything we like to imagine about big houses with scenic grounds occupied by governesses, wards, and suitors. The shortbread tin setting does not add much dimension to the story, except perhaps to give an element of Scottish stubbornness to Jane’s pride, but it is nice to look at and listen to nonetheless. A bolder choice was casting McGregor not only as Jane but also as Bertha, the mad woman in the attic. On one hand, it alters our perspectives of the characters by suggesting that they are two sides of the same coin; caught in the same struggle against patriarchal structures and separated only by the lottery of birth. On the other hand, Bertha, both canonically and in this adaptation, is Jamaican, and having her played by a white actress raises eyebrows. Although Jane and Bertha may share a feminist cause, conflating those experiences borders on whitewashing, even within a fictional narrative. It’s contentious, but not wholly unsuccessful.

The show is best epitomised by the way the whole cast is always dotted around the stage or just next to it, ready to re-enter the story at any time. It makes Jane’s world feel small and cyclical, how she feels boxed in by the restrictions of class and gender. But as effective as this convention is, the vision isn’t enough to make Jennifer Dick’s Jane Eyre stand out. It is a fine adaptation; it’s quiet, cosy, tame…and maybe a little dull. For fans of the novel, the love that this adaptation has for the story and the setting will deliver. On its own merit, poor little Jane Eyre is a plain offering from Bard in the Botanics. Three stars.

Whispers from the Crowd: "The actors were incredible, they truly sold the script they managed to condense."

Jane Eyre will play at the Botanical Gardens until the 6th of July


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