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Soon after Charlotte Brontë saw her first book, Jane Eyre, published to great acclaim in 1847, she wrote to a friend about something that was troubling her.Stage Whispers and Performing ArtsHub reviews the production:
She had not, she confessed, served the character of Bertha, the mad woman in the attic, very well. She had made her a monster, instead of a real person with real concerns and feelings.
“It made me certain that I wanted to make up for that,” says Sally Cookson, whose thrilling new version of Jane Eyre for the Bristol Old Vic theatre in the UK will be performed here next week as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival.
“Charlotte Brontë felt she hadn’t given Bertha a voice … And I realised that just the word ‘voice’ had triggered an idea. Why not give her a beautiful voice, I thought …”
So she cast jazz and musical singer Melanie Marshall in an extraordinary role that makes the mad woman in the attic one of the voices in Jane Eyre’s own head, as well as letting her express her own pain and relationship with the story.
“I saw the  Orson Welles film before I read the book,” Cookson says. “I remember being stunned by it: the music in particular was so extraordinary.”
Then she read the original book, recalls the director: “And he got it so wrong.” He had, she says, somehow missed out the voice of Jane altogether.
The tempting thing for any adaptation – and even a three-and-a-quarter hour play has to lose much more than it keeps – is to concentrate on the complicated love story between Rochester and Jane and the mystery of the attic.
But Cookson felt strongly that this book was more than a Gothic love story, and that the heart of the piece, “was Jane’s striving to find fulfilment in her life,” says Cookson. “It’s about an aspiration to be happy, and a feeling that you have to fight against injustice, whether that unfairness is against yourself or against other people.”
Cookson’s process as a director is unusual and painstaking, and remarkably challenging and exciting for the cast.
She rarely starts directing a play by using an actual script, for example. And she is renowned for changing things round at the last moment, keeping everyone on their toes.
“The dramaturge Mike Akers and I worked for about eight months with the book in front of us,” she says. “We were filleting the text, deciding which characters were in and which were out, what scenes we would include and which ones we would scrap, and what each scene achieved.
“And finally we got the actors in.”
At that point, she says, there was no actual script.
That would come from the actors improvising the scenes, and exploring the characters, and finding humour and pathos in small moments.
There was also no decision about stage design at the beginning, although after inviting the actors at a very early stage to play with ladders and a bit of scaffolding Cookson realised that she wanted Rochester’s house, Thornfield, to be almost a character in its own right. She would do that through a set that other people have called an “adventure playground”. (Victoria Finlay)
The tale is full of such vivacious and imposing characters, especially the cryptic and commanding, Rochester. Hayes makes Rochester a very handsome figure but does not neglect the tortured mannerisms and the intensely preoccupied gaze that give him his aura of charm and mystery. Overall, the play is extremely faithful to the text and very careful to preserve Brontë’s extraordinary writing, especially the moments that display Jane’s quiet determination and the sensitivity and humanity with which she asserts her morality. Bertha Mason is made a continual presence throughout the play with the haunting singing provided by Melanie Marshall. She is rendered incredibly spectral and yet undeniably present. This is a brilliant example of just one of the many ways in which music is used in an inventive and novel manner in this production. Fans of Brontë, and her protagonist Jane Eyre, will not want to miss this vibrant and fresh theatrical look at this legendary literary masterpiece. (Patricia Di Risio)
What a wonderful and original production! Director Sally Cookson’s theatrical interpretation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre for National Theatre Live, co-devised with her cast of ten and co-produced with Bristol’s Old Vic, is intensely passionate, witty, touching and strongly feminist. (Liza Dezfouli)New Haven Register reviews the play The Moors.
In dressing “The Moors” in an 1840s setting ripped from the pages of, say, “Wuthering Heights,” Silverman pokes the corseted ribs of any or all of the Brontës’ female characters while paralleling them to today’s narcissistic millennials so hungry to be noticed that every thought, emotion and meal requires documentation on social media. Nobody, it seems, wants to be invisible. (E. Kyle Minor)The essay Remembering Slavery, Again by Susan Gillman in the Los Angeles Review of Books discusses, among other things, whether Heathcliff could have been black or not.
British novelist Caryl Phillips published The Lost Child, partly a prequel to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, in which he draws on the long critical speculation that Heathcliff, brought from the slave port of Liverpool to the Yorkshire moors, is black. [...]This Huffington Post humorous column on book clubs also mentions Wuthering Heights. In an altogether different light, of course.
The hymn “Amazing Grace” plays as the signature music in both the BBC’s Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners and an earlier documentary, the 2009 independent film A Regular Black: The Hidden History of Wuthering Heights, which speculates on Heathcliff’s racial identity in the context of Yorkshire’s historical connections with slavery. Amazing Grace is the title of both the aforementioned musical about the moral awakening of Captain (later Reverend) John Newton and a 2006 film about William Wilberforce, who led the successful fight in Parliament in 1807 to abolish the slave trade throughout the British Empire (but not slavery itself, which happened much later, in 1834). Yet, despite the circulation of these four productions across the Atlantic, it is safe to say that most Americans would not recognize the British roots of this black spiritual — and that few readers anywhere would recognize a “black” Wuthering Heights. [...]
To track degrees of social visibility requires that we do more than answer “yes” or “no” to the questions of whether Britain’s slave owners are forgotten or Heathcliff is black; it requires trying to determine when and why these particular hot-button issues become visible. The question “Is Heathcliff black?” has been asked more than once and the “hidden history of Wuthering Heights” shown well and repeatedly, by the 2009 documentary A Regular Black, for instance, and all the prior scholarship on which it draws. [...]
Wuthering Heights is the perfect example of how the traces of slavery are not new news and can be found in seemingly unusual sources. Wuthering Heights has, for years, been read as a literary classic, and yet, although arguably a historical novel of slavery, it has been overlooked as a historical source. Wuthering Heights was published in 1847 but set earlier (it opens in 1801, and the story extends back to the 1770s), that is, before the 1834 abolition of slavery in Britain. A historical novel under the mask of the Gothic, it is notoriously veiled in its representations of slavery in Yorkshire. Scholars have periodically debated whether and how the footprints of slavery can be tracked in Brontë’s classic, sometimes by relying on the same few enigmatic lines as textual evidence of Heathcliff’s blackness. (Most often quoted: Mr. Earnshaw uses the pronoun “it” when he arrives from Liverpool with Heathcliff, “as dark almost as if it came from the devil.”) The contextual evidence was first laid out in the 1980s by scholar Christopher Heywood’s “Yorkshire Slavery in Wuthering Heights” (1987), a landmark essay frequently cited, the standard-setter documenting the evidence for slavery around Dent, the region of Yorkshire that provides the key geographic context for Emily Brontë’s knowledge of slavery in Britain. Heywood’s research points to all the black afterlives of Wuthering Heights, including Phillips’s novel and two films, the 2009 A Regular Black, with commentary by Phillips, and Andrea Arnold’s 2011 Wuthering Heights, with a black actor as Heathcliff. All of this harks back to the original text, Wuthering Heights, and prompts the question: why would Brontë in 1847 have set her novel in late 18th- to early 19th-century England, when slavery had not yet been abolished, and then veil its presence? [Read more]
Okay, the snacks were great, and so was the wine.A.V. Club discusses the film adaptation of Bridget Jones's Diary.
But the books were awful. I wanted to have fun, but everyone kept voting for books that were depressing. They called them "classics." I guess that's code for boring books where nothing really happens to people you don't care about, and books that leave you feeling there's no point being alive.
Like Wuthering Heights. What a mess those people were! They really needed serious chocolate or therapy or a week at an all-inclusive resort or even just a hot yoga class. Everything was so grim and confusing, and even that word "wuthering," plus the book cover made me feel like I was on the verge of a migraine. (Lev Raphael)
[Author Helen] Fielding helpfully calls out the Austen reference straightaway, kicking off the book with Bridget and Mark’s first meeting at the infamous turkey curry buffet. This Mr. Darcy also is curt and rude and a bit dismissive of our Bridget: “It struck me as pretty ridiculous to be called Mr. Darcy and to stand on your own looking aloof at a party. It’s like being called ‘Heathcliff’’ and insisting on spending your evening in the garden, calling ‘Cathy’ and banging your head against a tree.” (Gwen Ihnat)Fife Today features Travelzoo's online literary game.
From Emily Brontë to Dylan Thomas, the interactive map, beautifully designed, features some of the most well-known entries in the globally popular canon that is English literature. Users have 30 seconds to match the book to its location.AnneBrontë.org discusses the mask anecdote from when the Brontës were little.