“A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play,” says the titular character in the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s production of Jane Eyre.
The trouble with this particular adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s famed 1847 novel is that it seems to have forgotten which of those two it is.
The story is familiar to many, but if you need a quick recap: we follow Jane Eyre (Jennifer Dzialoszynski) from her childhood as a neglected orphan through her horrific schooling, and to her employment as a governess for the ward of Edward Rochester (Tim Campbell) - the unattainable man with whom she falls in love. Throughout, though, Jane maintains her resolve and independence, becoming what many consider one of the first truly feminist characters in literature.
This version, adapted for the stage by Seattle playwright Julie Beckman, employs the technique of “chamber theatre” - which has all of the play’s characters alternate as narrators, often describing their own actions or inner monologue.
Used judiciously, this can be an effective technique - especially in telling a story like Jane Eyre, where so much of the action is internal rather than external.
Here, though, it’s slathered on like a thick coat of paint. Do we really need a character to tell us he sat down, as he does so - or have Jane tell us that Rochester held her hand tightly, when we can clearly see for ourselves he is? The incessant reliance on narration here is a case of show and tell, and so is often an exercise in redundancy.
The great shame of this all is that in the too few moments where the narration is abandoned, and characters simply interact with one another, the enduring strength of Brontë’s writing and talent onstage shine through. Dzialoszynski and Campbell create a genuinely touching chemistry, for example, as Jane and Rochester’s thwarted romance reaches its conclusion - and they don’t need to explain to us how they’re feeling in that moment, because it’s plain to see.
The two leads, along with the rest of director Tracey Flye’s eight-member cast (rounded out by a half dozen performers who take on dozens of roles), struggle valiantly with this - perhaps none more so than Dzialoszynski. But burdened as she is with so much narration, her Jane too often strays from stoic to simply flat.
It all left me with the sense of watching a fine dramatic reading - but tedious theatre.
Jane Eyre runs at the John Hirsch Theatre (RMTC Mainstage) until Feb. 1.