Jane Eyre: An Autobiography

Show Reviews

British Theatre Guide

It's no surprise that Dyad Productions' latest theatrical offering could be described as minimally staged, as from the moment the lights rise from the darkness, to the final bow, the audience has been mesmerised completely by Rebecca Vaughan's magnetic stage presence and captivating control.

The piece retells the story of Charlotte Brontë's arguably best work, Jane Eyre, by a fine adaptation from Vaughan's long-time collaborator Elton Townend Jones. It's a brilliant accomplishment in and of itself to have brought a three-volume novel to the stage in a mere ninety minutes; but what sets this production apart is the skill with which this solid script brings to the stage the story of Jane's life from child to grown woman, without ever flagging throughout the runtime.

It's a marathon of a story, which still somehow never feels its own length and, of course, in the hands of a practiced and charismatic performer such as Vaughan, we're led on a bleak but captivating gothic journey, from the abuses and unkindnesses of Jane's youth, through troubles and tragedies as a schoolgirl to her place as a governess at Thornfield Hall and her brooding romance with Mr Rochester.

It can be no simpler put that if you haven't seen Dyad Productions' work before, you simply must. They are a dependable diamond of the stage every Edinburgh Fringe Festival and should not be missed.

BROADWAY BABY

Jane Eyre – An Autobiography has to be one of the most moving pieces of theatrical storytelling ever created; quite simply, it's astounding. Hands down the best adaptation of Jane Eyre I have ever seen, in any medium. And there have been quite a few.

Fiercely loyal to the novel, Jane Eyre – An Autobiography has been adapted by Elton Townend Jones, retaining much of the original text, to be performed by the unbelievable talent of Rebecca Vaughan. She plays Jane, fully formed, telling her story from childhood at Reed Hall to time at Thornfield, her escape to Moor House and her final return to her lover.

Vaughan plays all the roles, using vocal variety and her skill in physical theatre to her advantage. This was done so expertly and seamlessly that it is possible to forget you were watching one single actress, and, instead, are able to lose yourself in the expert and evocative storytelling. The narrative was told with complete commitment and conviction, and Vaughan embodied the character of Jane so fully and realistically, bringing out all her humour and wit and independence.

Rochester is not portrayed as a typical romantic lead, with all of his Byronic flaws being brought out in the open instead. His portrayal is very loyal to the book, and yet aspects that one may have skimmed over in reading are brought out: his manipulations, his jealousies… The unlikeable qualities managed to make the tale more realistic and powerful, however, and the interpretations of the novel were absolutely convincing throughout.

Jane Eyre- An Autobiography is a fantastic introduction to Bronte's masterpiece, but for those who know and love the novel, it is a show not to be missed. The performance is powerful, polished and absolutely unique, breathing life into the characters like nothing I've ever seen before. 

Edinburgh Guide

In 1836 aged just twenty, Charlotte Brontë sent a sample of her poetry to the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, who was far from encouraging: "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be."

Undeterred by this misogynist response and several rejections from publishers, her novel, "Jane Eyre, an Autobiography", edited by Currer Bell was published in October 1847. Believed to be a true memoir revealing radical, feminist opinions on women in society, love, marriage and freedom, it was an instant success.

Following "Dalloway" in 2014, Dyad's exquisitely elegant adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, this innovative company has created another theatrical masterpiece, transferring Bronte's novel from page to stage with extraordinary imagination and literary insight.

The empty stage is cloaked in a huge sail as a backcloth from ceiling and across the floor, on which is placed a small Ottoman. Amidst a soft shower of grey-tinted light and the sound of rain, Jane sits in her tightly corseted grey gown. We soon learn about her awful situation, living with a cruel aunt, and bullying cousins, before being sent off to Lowood, a charity school for orphans, who suffer a strict doctrine of privation, piety and punishment.

As a narrator of her own autobiography, Rebecca Vaughan plays Jane throughout as an adult, reminiscing her childhood, school and friendship with Helen Burns – captured in evocative flashbacks. She studies hard to ensure an independent life and career as a governess, gaining employment at Thornfield Hall.

Short dramatised vignettes feature a household of characters, the kindly Mrs Fairfax and the stern Mr Rochester, simply portrayed by adopting a low voice and stooped posture, right hand behind her back; Grace Poole, the strange servant, and dinner party guests including the rather dull, dumb socialite, Blanche Ingram whom Jane dismissingly refers to as "not original, nothing blooms, I am better than she!."

The first real hint of her rising jealousy and affection for Edward Rochester, whom she now sees has hidden intellect and charm. Their conversations are sprinkled with humour: " Miss Ingram is a rare one, is she not?" he asks Jane, who politely replies, "Yes Sir," but in the cold tone and fury of a woman scorned.

Intimate scenes are dramatised with atmospheric sound and lighting from a sunlit garden to a candlelit dining room with shimmering shadows on the back wall. Dinner bells and chiming clocks create a steady, timely pace day by day with the silence of the night broken by terrifying screams which chill the blood.

This is a deftly distilled adaptation by Elton Townend Jones of Bronte's Gothic tale of mystery and romance. Jane Eyre and all the characters are brought to life with subtle nuance, virtuosity and heartfelt passion by Rebecca Vaughan. A cast of ten actors could not have created a more powerful or emotional production.

TV Bomb

Never have the words 'I married him' been uttered with more unfettered triumph and knowing glee than by Rebecca Vaughan's vibrant Jane in Dyad Productions' Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. This new play is based on the classic novel by Charlotte Bronte, but the words "vibrant" and "Jane" are not usually synonymous in the context of this tale of an abused orphan-turned-governess in northern England in the first half of the 19th century. Certainly, the character possesses voracious intelligence and a fierce spirit forged in her own private childhood hell, but she is described in the novel – indeed, she describes herself – as 'poor, obscure, plain and little'. Jane is notoriously hard on herself, especially when it comes to stifling any nascent ideas that her employer, the archetypal "dark and brooding" Mr Rochester, could harbour any romantic feelings for a poor little governess.

Happily, there is nothing poor or little about this show. The script by Elton Townend Jones is nothing short of marvellous, and the consummate skill with which he condenses such complex source material to an hour and a half pales only against the seemingly effortless way he makes it sing onstage. This is no costumed reading of a book upon the boards, nor a monotonous monologue, but rather a full-blooded, vein-tingling theatrical adaptation that more than earns the title "play".

Townend Jones' own direction facilitates this process, but – as with all the best productions – it is difficult to tell where his creative input ceases and Vaughan's wonderful performance begins. And it is wonderful: the kind that stays with you for days after you wear your hands out in applause, as this audience, without hesitation, emphatically do. The stamina and effort alone required to sustain such a lengthy solo performance are remarkable, but there is more – much more.

Aesthetically, Vaughan's apparel and environs embody Jane to a tee: Jane herself would be content. Her dress is plain, her hair is plain, even the set is plain – this latter providing a highly effective foil against which Vaughan's voice and Townend Jones' script can soar. But here Jane's puritan self-image and the true nature of her soul (and that of the play) part ways. The true power here, as with Bronte's source material, lies in the writer's unrelenting willingness and Jane's innate need to shatter the illusions of societal division by socio-economic class, championing instead the ties of the soul and intellect over those of status and sex. Vaughan's own power as a performer stems from her ability to plum these depths of her character's soul and lay them bare upon the stage.

At a key moment in the play, Jane declares, "He's not of their kind, he's of mine." Earlier still, "I am a free human being with an independent will." She is Rochester's equal, and he is hers. That triumphant declaration of marriage at the climax is therefore commuted from the simple romantic story resolution it would be in, say, a Jane Austen text, and becomes instead a fierce declaration of both liberation and equality.

There is nothing whatsoever obscure about this production. It is an intellectual and spiritual liaison between writer and actor and audience, which plays out at a tremendous pace – only letting up at the final crescendo – and which transcends the artificially-imposed barriers of time, page, class and stage to speak directly to the audience's soul – if, that is, they have the wit to listen.

The Scotsman

Witty, defiant, brilliant Jane: an idol for generations of young women, and now, in true Edinburgh Fringe style, the centre of a one-woman show.

Brilliantly performed by Rebecca Vaughan, Elton Townend Jones' adaptation might be stripped back, but it doesn't lose any of the atmosphere, warmth and sparkling chemistry of Jane's tumultuous relationship with Mr Rochester. However, it also gives us what some lesser adaptations can miss – Jane's astute perspective on the constraints of life as a woman two centuries ago.

Abused by her aunt, and told to learn "shame and sobriety" at school, Jane is constantly battling against people trying to punish her, as a woman, for doing anything other than fade into the background. "They see demons but we are divine," as she puts it. And then there are the many supporting characters, so often forgotten in favour of Rochester and his "mad" wife in the attic: Jane's childhood idol Helen Brown; Grace Poole with her "goblin laugh"; Blanche Ingram with her "olive skin, raven hair [who] delighted at the piano" but quotes all of her opinions "from books".

Through simple but striking, unobtrusive set design (and, in particular, atmospheric lighting from Martin Tucker), the cosy atmosphere of Thornfield, where Jane ends up as a governess, is conjured up from the shadows. "Tea, toast and a good sized teacake" are always on offer and the red glow of the fire ever present. It's here that Jane meets Rochester and a relationship develops that's not only a soaring romance, but a meeting of two sharp minds, both trying, in their own way to break down society's expectations for them. And what a relationship it is. While Rochester's insane wife isn't really given a voice, this is – as Charlotte Brontë wrote it – Jane's story, and it's very well done.

The List

While that unfamiliar extended title may suggest a new spin on a literary classic (a staple tactic of Fringe theatremakers), rest assured: this is the same Charlotte Brontë-penned gothic romance you (possibly) know and love, adapted by Dyad Productions under its original title. It follows the life of Jane Eyre who, after a dismal childhood of abuse at the hands of a vicious aunt and a pious schoolmaster, uses her smarts to land a cushy job as governess of Thornfield Hall. There, she tutors a young girl, Adèle Varens, whose guardian Mr Rochester proves a volatile but alluring figure...

Call us overcautious, but we'll avoid any further spoilers for a 169-year-old book. Sole performer Rebecca Vaughan pours her soul into making Jane an emotionally sympathetic hero for the audience to follow, and writer / director Elton Townend-Jones has done a good job of condensing the novel into 90 gripping minutes, and the staging – an off-white backdrop and couch, transformed by lighting cues – is elegantly simple.

The Fest

There's a lot to say about Dyad Productions' one-person version of Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. There's the script, for starters, which manages to package the whole of Charlotte Brontë's first-person narrative into the space of an hour-and-a-half. It's an extremely sensitive job by Elton Townend Jones, who manages to cram all 38 chapters in without it ever feeling rushed, squashed or misshapen.

Like the novel, we begin in medias res, so we move off at a fair lick. But it's pacy without ever taking on the frenetic feel of a One Man Lord of the Rings, or its ilk. Indeed, Jones isn't afraid to linger when necessary, or skip by when it works. Thus, we remain at Lowood long enough for the emotional and physical privations to leave their mark; but our time in the company of St. John is by contrast perfunctory and cold. The staging, too, is smartly devised. Minimalist and making excellent use of lighting, this goes nowhere near the excesses of period drama, and it's to the good.

But, mostly, it's a solo performance that's most worth talking about. As Jane Eyre—as well as Mrs Reed, Bessie Lee, Mr Lloyd, Mr Brocklehurst, Mrs Fairfax, St. John Rivers, Bertha and, of course, Mr Rochester—Rebecca Vaughan is fantastic. She picks out character traits and accents without ever approaching caricature; she beautifully blurs the boundaries between Jane's observations and her reflections on them; she lulls us into an unquestioning reliance on her own narration. Her Jane is sympathetic and steely. Her Rochester is deeply alluring. There's a glib term which would aptly describe a one-woman peformance of this range. But to use it would be clichéd, which this production never is.

Surrey Life

What a Herculean task it seems in theory to take on Charlotte Bronte's beloved novel and adapt it as a one-woman show! Miraculously it succeeds in its ambition. As the book itself is seen through Jane's eyes as a first person narrative this makes it perhaps a little easier but it's still no mean feat to take on one of literature's seminal heroines in this fashion singlehandedly and do it so well. The 'Reader' Jane addresses so intimately in the novel becomes 'Friends' on stage and the transition works well, it's a simple device but lends an air of shared experience.

With just a simple, well-lit couch at her disposal Rebecca Vaughan manages to capture the essence of the novel from the first few minutes and brings all the key moments of the book vividly to life opening with Jane hiding from her violent cousin in the windowseat, her challenging time at Lowood Institution, her arrival at Thornfield and subsequent relationship with the brusque Mr Rochester plus everything that follows. Elton Townend Jones, writer and director of the show has done a terrific job in condensing the book in such a stylish and yet effective manner, nothing pivotal is overlooked, nothing superfluous is included.

Excellent lighting and atmospheric soundscape are all the props Vaughan has, she conjures Bronte's unforgettable world simply with the power of her delivery and the vivacity with which she conveys the claustrophobic restrictions of Jane's existence 'I am no bird and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will' it's something contemporary women take for granted of course but extraordinary stuff given that this was written in 1847.

Of course Vaughan also has to embody every other character in the book and it's superbly done overall and by the enthusiastic reception she receives after a mere ninety minutes the audience are clearly captivated by her Jane Eyre.

Fringe Review
OUTSTANDING SHOW

Jane Eyre is written and directed by Elton Townend-Jones and stars Rebecca Vaughan, a writer and performer who repeatedly shines at the Fringe, and around the UK. Her solo shows are regularly acclaimed, often involving characters from literature and history.

I was more than a little dubious as to whether Charlotte Bronte's much loved novel could be adequately covered in a 90 minute piece of theatre. Indeed, the fact that this was to be done as a one woman show increased my scepticism. However, these doubts were soon laid to rest, as Dyad Productions have not only managed it, but have produced an incredible show which authentically reproduces the novel onto the stage.

Although it is a very basic set with only a single couch set centre, it works extremely well and with the clever use of lighting and soundscape, allows the narrative to flow quickly without ever feeling rushed or clunky and manages to conjure up the different moods that proliferate the novel.

I felt the novel had come to life on the stage, be it the red room, Lowood or any of the numerous settings. So, it looks and feels right, but there are two main reasons why this is such a brilliant piece of theatre – firstly Elton Townend-Jones remarkable adaption and direction, which somehow fits in all the essential elements of the novel without it feeling forced or rushed, is simply remarkable.

It also remains faithful to Bronte's novel, everything being seen through Jane Eyre's eyes without adding unnecessary scenes that never appeared in the novel, but are often added in film and other adaptations detracting from the essence of the original work. Secondly, there is the actor, a simply stunning performance from Rebecca Vaughan, playing 24 different characters, each with their own distinctive personality, which gave me the same feelings and experience as an audience member as the novel did when I read it. Whether it be the nasty John Reid, sympathetic Bessie, the delightfully batty Miss Fairfax or any of the vast array of people portrayed, each adds to the narrative and contributes to a feeling of being immersed in the novel.

It is not only a singular feat of memory, but to bring the page to the stage so convincingly is something I will not quickly forget and begs a second viewing. Attention to detail is very evident in all aspects of this production, like Vaughan's costume and hairstyle which are exactly how I pictured Jane Eyre from the novel, and thus helps one to be drawn into that 19th century world.

This adaptation stands on its own and whether or not you are familiar with the story of Jane Eyre or completely unaware, this is an enjoyable and absorbing journey. As I left the theatre I heard numerous positive comments and there was a definite feeling that we had just seen something very special.

Dyad Productions have produced a number of well received shows over a few years now, but this, I believe, has reached a new level and I not only am I planning to see Jane Eyre again, I thoroughly look forward to their next project.

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