Jane Eyre steps off the page and onto the Citadel stage, in a new Erin Shields adaptation

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” — Jane Eyre

In the new play getting its world premiere at the Citadel Thursday after two years of COVID-ian delays, one of literature’s most compelling characters steps off the 19th century page and onto the contemporary stage.

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She’s Jane Eyre, the spirited heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s masterly 1847 novel. And the strong-willed orphan girl is at the centre of the theatrical adaptation commissioned by the Citadel from the acclaimed Canadian playwright Erin Shields. 

Re-imagining classics for modern theatre audiences — through a contemporary feminist lens — is something of a specialty of Shields, a Governor General’s Award winner for If We Were Birds (spun from the Greek myths of Ovid’s Metamorphoses). Ibsen’s The Lady From The Sea, The Epic of Gilgamesh, even Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, have caught her playwright’s eye before now. Queen Goneril, her prequel to Shakespeare’s King Lear, premieres at Toronto’s Soulpepper this summer. Jane Eyre is the first time Shields has adapted a novel. 

The idea of capturing for theatre this much-loved novel — a tumultuous story of an orphan girl who against the odds transcends neglect and cruelty, poverty, betrayal and manipulation to take charge of her own fortunes — was floated by Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran. It was music to her ears, says Shields, a bright, funny, and very articulate voice on the phone from her Montreal home base. 

playwright Erin Shields

“I love that novel! Many of us discovered it in our teenage years; somehow it really spoke to us! And I was curious: what is it about Jane Eyre that makes us all fall in love with it? I did when I was 16; why do I still think of it as a really compelling text? That was the real starting point for me.”

In her adaptations Shields’ muse seems to have a double-optic, whether it’s Milton or Shakespeare she takes in hand. Jane Eyre retains its period setting (and a glorious array of 19th century costumes). But, she says, “part of my compulsion to revisit, to question the authority of these foundational texts, is ‘where am I in that time? How does it resonate for me as a contemporary Canadian woman now’?” 

Cloran echoes that thought when he’s talked about Shields’ particular gift for adaptation.“Erin really gets it,” he’s said, “how to take a classic story, look at it from her contemporary viewpoint, make it resonate for a contemporary audience.”

With Jane Eyre, there’s the added lustre of its female authorship, says Shields. Most of her adaptations have been from texts written by men. “It’s a different glimpse…. You really get an insight into this young female character that you don’t get in novels of that time,” not least because it’s written from the first-person perspective.

So what makes the plain Jane governess such an evergreen character, memorable and appealing? “I just love that she is uncompromising,” says Shields. “She has her own moral compass. And she just refuses to compromise her self,” even when the price tag on refusal is high.

“She has an extraordinary self-knowledge for someone who’e been so abused — by her aunt, her cousins, that awful school. She’s manipulated by Rochester (the mysterious master of haunted Thornfield manor) in many ways. But she’s just so grounded.”

“Physically it seems like she’d have no power in the world; she’s constantly described as ‘plain’ and ‘little’. And in some ways that’s what young women like about it too: you don’t have to be a super-model to have power over your own circumstances and be loved…. I think Rochester does see her and love her uncompromising direct soul. By the end we’re rooting for them; we want them to be together.”

Novels and theatre work their storytelling magic in different ways, of course, “especially in the case of a novel as internalized, as introspective as Jane Eyre,” as Shields points out. “You get a really interesting look at the inside of the character. But when you’re putting people onstage, you have to do it all through talking.”

So, how to capture the novel’s inner voice: that was the playwright’s challenge. “For me, theatrically, I had an image of all the action swirling around Jane and propelling her from, one situation to the next,” says Shields. “And I imagined a real physicality to it.” Much of that narrative flow and the conjuring of Jane’s inner voices from her turbulent past are the work of movement director Ainsley Hillyard of Good Women Dance. 

“What I love about theatre,” Shields sighs happily, “what I’ve missed so much, is that it’s a team sport. I have the first pass at making the blueprint for the thing, but I purposely leave a lot of space in there for other collaborators to come in with, say, beautiful, interesting costumes that will serve the piece, or for actors to find their way through it, or a director to bring their imagination to it…. That’s when the play becomes three-dimensional.”  

An ensemble of nine actors play more than four dozen characters in the course of Shields’s adaptation. “I’m hoping people will be surprised and enchanted by how these amazing actors conjure all these different characters,” she says.

“Conjure” is the operative word for the kind of imaginative theatricality toward which Shields and director Cloran, theatre friends of long standing, gravitate. This isn’t the kind of theatre where tons of furniture get pushed onto the stage for a scene, to duplicate a novel, or photograph “reality,”  then shoved off again 15 minutes later. “What’s the point of that?” She laughs. “Go read the novel!”

In Jane, a feminist playwright  has a feminist heroine to work with, for once. Shields has a bone to pick with Shakespeare on those grounds, hence her Queen Goneril. “When Shakespeare was writing women weren’t even allowed to perform on a stage…” The consequence, in the canon of the most performed playwright in the English language, is that “there are maybe three females and 15 guys in every play. There are exceptional women characters, of course, but for me many are shortchanged.” For Shields, Goneril, one of Lear’s “bad” daughters, is one of those. “In King Lear she’s a stock villain. What if she had her own existential crisis?” Ophelia is another. “What if she had five big soliloquies?” like her moody boyfriend.  

“I need to see myself in the main character,” says Shields of her adaptations. That’s why in Paradise Lost, “Satan is a middle-aged woman who’s had it up to here with the patriarchy.”

Shields’ theatrical roots are in low-budget fringe productions, and acting. She grew up in Hamilton, went to theatre school at Rose Bruford in London, England, then moved to Toronto to start an acting career. Auditioning was a series of frustrations, she remembers. “All the parts I went up for were brutal: dumb and ditsy girls or girlfriends or wives.… That was what was available and I wasn’t even particularly good at getting them.” 

“I needed to perform, so that’s when I started writing. OK if no one will hire me, I’ll hire myself!” She took her first play, Hot Dog (“a one-woman play about a vegetarian who eats a hot dog” and thereby alienates her dietary community) on the Fringe circuit. “Then I realized a lot of other people are doing this too; I had found my cohorts!” 

For Shields, who’s moving from Montreal to Toronto this summer with her husband Gideon Arthurs (currently the CEO of the National Theatre School) and their two daughters, writing was “a way of making (theatre) happen for yourself instead of writing for the gatekeepers.” And from the start she had her own mandate, “a personal vendetta against the canon of plays that are normally presented on Canadian stages.” She vowed that “every single play I write will at least have more women than men. And very good parts for women. That’s just what I’m gonna do!” 

And she’s done it. In the case of Beautiful Man, a gender-reversal play which Shields wrote “out of my disgust with big-budget film and television” — their saturation with “violence against women, the negation of the female characters, the male gaze plastered all over women’s bodies” — the sole man is eye candy, with maybe half a dozen lines in the whole play as three women discuss shows they’ve seen.

Rage has often motivated Shields’ work, as she says cheerfully. With Jane Eyre, it’s love. “I could have given it a contemporary setting. But what I love about having distance between now and the Victorian period is that the mind has to work to say ‘how is that like my life now?’…. What’s fun is to find the elastic between the then and the now.”  

“Besides, I find the Victorian gothic period so juicy,” says Shields of  “the contrast between the restraints and the boiling tumult within very passional people trying to live within those constraints…. The language of the play lives somewhere between the formal 19th century register and our own contemporary colloquial language.”

“You’re inventing a new language in a way. And you’re inviting, provoking, the audience to go along with it.” 

PREVIEW

Jane Eyre

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Erin Shields, adapted from the Charlotte Brontë novel

Directed by: Daryl Cloran

Starring: Hailey Gillis, Helen Belay, Nadien Chu, Ivy DeGagné, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Garett Ross, Maralyn Ryan, John Ullyatt, Gianna Vacirca

Running: March 19 through April 10

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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