“I like making popular theatre,” says Sally Cookson, director of Bristol Old Vic’s Jane Eyre, which is currently previewing at the National. “I love going to a show where there’s a wide demographic. I like seeing people of all ages, from everywhere – that gives me real pleasure. We like being in big groups of people, going to the football, for example, and that crowd of different people sharing something together excites me. I’d love to achieve that in a theatre.”
Cookson makes devised work, often marketed at a family audience – she directed Hetty Feather in the West End, the Unicorn’s Cinderella, and is a stalwart of Bristol family shows, including Peter Pan, Treasure Island and The Boy Who Cried Wolf . Jane Eyre, at the National as part of Rufus Norris’s commitment to co-productions, takes the show that was at Bristol Old Vic last year and introduces it to a London audience. Cookson ducks out of rehearsals to have a quick chat, and says more in 25 minutes than most interviewees manage in a lot longer. I get so caught up in what she’s saying that I manage to forget my jacket when I leave.
Sitting in a fifth floor meeting room, Cookson positively vibrates with energy and is clearly keen – in the nicest way – to get back to her cast. “There’s lots and lots of tweaking going on! I originally made it as two shows, and it’s been very challenging turning it into one. Initially, you think, we’ll just cut this, that and the other, and squidge it all together and it’ll be fine. You realise that one show needs to have an entirely different arc to two shows…”The whole Bristol cast have made the transfer to London, which has been “vital”. Cookson tells me: “As a devised piece, every single actor is so invested in it, they feel such ownership over it, because they have not only created their characters but we have all collaborated so closely on interpreting this as a group of people.”
Is the devising process different, I wonder, when there’s one clear central character, as with Jane? “She is the driving character,” agrees Cookson, “but Madeleine [Worrall] understands very well the devising process. Although a lot of who Jane has become has come from Madeleine, a lot of the other things we see Jane do have come from a shared investigation.” Cookson emphasises how much of the rest of the production has come from this shared process – all being in a room and “playing together… mucking about in the rehearsal room”.
When I saw the production in Bristol, Worrall’s Jane left me thinking that this woman has an unusual single-mindedness and determination, coupled with an ability to bend with circumstance and be flexible. “Exactly!” cries Cookson, who speaks in italics. “That’s what makes her such an intelligent woman. She really understands when she needs to take action. She thinks, she feels, and she never waits for someone to help or save her. She knows that something’s wrong – an injustice has happened or her integrity is threatened – she will make a decision to change her circumstances. That’s what’s so inspiring about her.”
“When she is betrayed by Rochester and discovers the terrible truth about Bertha, she takes action. She picks herself up and gets out of Thornfield – that’s inspirational. She has these moments of clear thinking in the worst possible circumstances, and not relying on anyone else. Those aspects of Jane hit me as soon as I read the book again – I knew that was going to be important. But casting Madeleine, she brings all of her perspective and all of her self to the part – she’s got a lot of Jane in her DNA.”
For Cookson, Jane Eyre is “inspirational… extraordinary… deeply radical”, and that enthusiasm is clearly evident in the production. “I have never seen Jane Eyre as a boring book. A lot of people get turned off it at school because they have tostudy it. I think what has surprised us all is that it’s a fantastic page-turner of a story. It’s vital that we get that across. It’s one of those books that has taken on legendary status – everyone knows about it regardless of whether they’ve read it or not. A lot of people associate Jane Eyre with a passionate love story, and forget all the other bits.”
People tend to know the ‘mad wife in the attic’ bit, and “Reader, I married him”. Cookson points out that the book’s subtitle was originally “an autobiography”, and her production encompasses Jane’s early years, as well as her time with Rochester. “Reading the book, you don’t actually meet Rochester until a quarter of the way through. I thought it was important that we took that on board and told the life story of this woman. Everything that happens really informs who she becomes as an adult.”
Returning to Cookson’s point that the original book is “so radical”, she tells me: “when it came out, it was seen as an incendiary piece of writing. There was this young woman lashing out against the constraints that were placed upon her as a poor, stateless female in the mid-nineteenth century, who was saying, no, I refuse to be put in a box. I refuse to be constrained, to have no power, to not be free. I have a voice, and I will be heard.”
“Jane has a fundamental understanding of what is needed to get the most out of life, which is extraordinary – mind-blowing! If you think about the powerlessness of women at that time, and for Charlotte Bronte to voice that through Jane Eyre was incredibly incendiary and caused a lot of aggressive reactions. That’s why it’s seen as a feminist piece of literature, but I also love the emphasis that’s put on the human rights elements of the book; she’s a supporter of human rights, really. In order to live good lives, these are the things that we need: we need love, both to be loved and to love, we need stimulation emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, and if we don’t have those things we can’t thrive. That’s the central ethos of the book, that for me has triggered this production.”
We move on the talk about “the regions” (well, Bristol) and what it’s like to bring a show to London. “It’s so marvellous that Rufus is inviting shows in. It’s as it should be – it’s a national theatre and it should be national. Theatre that is made all over the place should be coming here. That feels right. It can be very frustrating when all the focus is on work that’s being made in London, when there is extraordinary, ground-breaking work being made all over the UK.”
“There can be a cosiness about being in Bristol – there’s an audience I feel I know quite well. This is a much bigger space and a much larger audience. That does change the experience. I’m trying to gauge that through previews. We’ve known from the beginning that what we had before was for then, and the task was to create something different. It’s been very hard cutting it, because you get attached to certain characters and moments, but that is my job – to get the golden axe out and kill your darlings. It’s the painful part of the process…”
Once Jane Eyre is up and running again, Cookson will head back to Bristol, to direct Bristol Old Vic’s Christmas show, Sleeping Beauty. That this isn’t a standard Sleeping Beauty is unsurprising: Cookson has gender-flipped the story, so the Sleeping Beauty in question is a Prince, rescued by a woman. Given her attention to the feminist angles in Jane Eyre, I ask if this is important to her work? “I just wanted to do something different. I find that first bit of Sleeping Beauty a little bit boring… I thought, what happens if we flip it? I like playing around with fairy tales. I’m a big fan of fairy tales, I’m very drawn to them, and use them often as a source. So this idea to have Sleeping Beauty as a boy was just something I wanted to try for fun, and then when we tried it with actors, it took off and it felt right. It’s going to be fun!”
And with that, Cookson bounces off back to rehearsals, to kill some more darlings and get Jane Eyre ready to open in London.
Jane Eyre opens on 17th September at the National Theatre: you can book tickets here