Adapting classics for the stage is never an easy feat but Blackeyed Theatre Company have been bringing an impressive selection of timeless tales to the stage with their own unique stamp since 2004. With a reputation for daring adaptation, accessibility and impressive loyalty to source texts, the company is one of the UK’s leading mid-scale touring theatre companies. The tour of their latest production, Jane Eyre, was cut short by the pandemic so the company have taken their wares online, offering audiences the chance to stream both this production and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde on demand. Here, Artistic Director and Producer Adrian McDougall talks all things Blackeyed Theatre and Jane Eyre…
At last! I’ve been enjoying Blackeyed Theatre shows for a few years now and I’m pretty chuffed to have a chance to get a little more insight. You describe the company’s work as having two aims: ‘to provide audiences and artists with fresh, challenging work; and to make that work sustainable by reaching as wide and diverse an audience as possible.’ I’ve certainly seen evidence of the former in your previous works, but what can you tell me about your approach to the latter?
Being sustainable is partly about getting an audience. Some might use the word ‘commercial’. In the arts, being commercial is sometimes sneered at. There’s almost an assumption that if you’re commercially successful, your work can’t be artistically worthy, or fresh or challenging. I’m a big believer that theatre can and should do both, and that audiences – and I include the vast majority of mainstream audiences in this – appreciate the inventive, pure theatricality that characterises our work.
In fact, it’s often those moments where we really call on an audience’s imagination that emerge as highlights. That links to another type of sustainability; artistic sustainability. For an industry facing ever-decreasing public funding, it’s all too easy to create theatre that plays it too safe. Don’t get me wrong, as a producer I get the importance of ‘safe’ when programming theatre. But equally, let’s not underestimate audiences’ thirst for creativity, theatricality and imagination. What we produce are recognisable, well-known titles, which have an audience, performed in ways that thrill, challenge and surprise.
Recent and previous work from Blackeyed Theatre centres on established classics which are revamped and re-shaped in some way to appeal to modern audiences. Would you say you find the revered classics to be particularly malleable for contemporary theatre makers and audiences?
Well, ‘malleability’ is something you’ve got to be careful with when treating a classic piece of literature. I can’t speak for other theatre makers, but respecting the source material is important for me. That doesn’t mean you can’t be creative in the way you adapt it for the stage, but you have to be careful to maintain the heart and soul of the original work. That’s your anchor. They’re classic works because they’re universal human stories, because they have something fundamental to say about the world we live in, regardless of when they’re told.
Equally, you have to be mindful of social sensibilities of the time. For example, an audience today will react very differently to the portrayal of Bertha in Jane Eyre to a reader of the novel in the mid-19th century. At a time when – quite rightly – we are more sensitive to issues of race and empire, to what extent should you present Bertha as she’s portrayed in the novel? That’s a real challenge.
More broadly though, these texts are sprawling, epic tales. And rather by osmosis, we have a developed a theatrical style that lends itself perfectly to literary adaptation. We’ve always embraced Brechtian theatricality. We revel in celebrating the mechanics of theatre, where the elements of live music, changes of costume, character and set, as well as set movement aren’t just seen but woven into the fabric of the production. Add to that the fact that so many classic novels allow a central first-person narrative, it gives us licence to translate vast swathes of text to the stage in a way that’s engaging, creative and fun.
We moved Jonathan Harker across continents using song in Dracula, brought the monster to life using bunraku puppetry in Frankenstein and staged a boat chase along the Thames using music and movement in The Sign Of Four. Audiences love seeing these fantastic stories told in interesting ways.
And it seems that much of your work ties in nicely with texts studied in schools – is this a happy coincidence or do you feel a sense of responsibility as theatre makers to give young learners the opportunities to see great narratives told in the flesh?
Education has always underpinned our work as a company. I come from a family of teachers, and the state of education – and in particular the dwindling prominence of the arts in education today – is something I care about greatly. Our work is seen by a lot of young people, and often we’re their first theatrical experience. It’s so important that first exposure to theatre is engaging and inspiring. And young people are great critics. They know the difference between a story told for truth and one told for laughs.
The most common feedback we receive from teachers and parents is that our performance has made a young person to want to read the novel! If we can, in some small way, induce in students an enthusiasm for theatre or an interest in literature or both, it makes what we’re doing truly worthwhile.
One of the few positive effects of the pandemic for us (and they’re haven’t been many) is that it’s pushed us to embrace ‘digital’, particularly when engaging schools. So in addition to creating filmed versions of Jane Eyre and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, we’ve filmed additional content – interviews and Q&As with the cast and artistic team – exclusive to schools focusing on those elements of the performances and source material useful for both drama and English students. It’s that additional insight that really enhances the experience for students.
The latest show, the tour of Jane Eyre (adapted by Nick Lane), still had months to go and was set for China before COVID struck. How did the company navigate the choppy waters of those cancellations at the time and do you anticipate an eventual live return?
It was a big blow for us as a company. It felt like we lost our relevance overnight. The show was doing really well and getting excellent feedback, and as well as China, we had to cancel venues such as Bath, Windsor, and Buxton. On top of the obvious financial hit, the uncertainty around the possible return to touring has been really difficult. We were fortunate enough to get some Arts Council funding back in May, which enabled us to offer the Jane Eyre company some financial support as well as stream some archive recordings while also paying royalties.
It’s been one of our key objectives throughout the pandemic to continue producing work online and, rather than just giving it away, encouraging audiences and schools to pay for it. It’s a balance, of course, because it’s important that theatre is accessible to as wide an audience as possible, but equally we, as an industry, have to find a way to reach online audiences in a sustainable way and be better at nurturing the value of what we do. It comes back to that word, ‘sustainable’.
What was it that drew the company to Jane Eyre early on in the process? There’s plenty to love but what was it that grabbed your eye as theatre makers with those two very clear objectives in mind?
It gave us fantastic opportunities as artists to create something magical on stage. As a story, it has everything; romance, tragedy, gothic horror, comedy, satire, social commentary. It features one of the greatest female characters in literature and it’s a searing celebration of female empowerment, way ahead of its time. 19th century literature tends to be populated largely by strong male protagonists, and our previous productions of Jekyll & Hyde, Dracula and Frankenstein reflect that. I really felt it was important to give some gender balance to our work. And what better inspiration for a girl growing up in 2020 that Jane Eyre?
The other feature of the novel that I really felt lent itself to our brand of theatre was the first-person narrative. In Jane Eyre, it’s integral, probably more so than any of our previous titles. The intimate first-person perspective was ground-breaking when the novel was published, and I really wanted to harness that intimacy and use it as the driving force for our production. The element of story-telling that has so characterised our past productions would, in Jane Eyre, come to the fore.
In terms of the commercial viability of the title, it’s incredibly well-known and well-loved. And yet, it’s not been done to death. The National produced a very successful version a few years ago, but perhaps due to the scale of the novel, it’s not a regular on stage, and certainly not on the touring circuit.
You returned the production to the stage for just two performances in November and now audiences can watch the production online – what prompted you to take the production online (along with a catalogue of previous productions) after the cast were given their final and long-awaited live bows?
Partly to help us remain viable as a business. It’s not a replacement for our usual income as a touring company, but it does enable us to generate ticket sales and in so doing pay our artists royalties from that. In addition, it gives audiences who may have missed the live performance a chance to see it form the safety of the front room. And a longer-term benefit for us is the potential to grow our audience online, which in the fullness of time will, I hope, help grow our live audience when touring returns. As I mentioned before, the last 9 months have forced us to engage with audiences online and it’s important to see that as a positive step. My belief is that access to theatre online, far from being a threat to live in-person theatre, will only open theatre up to wider audience. It’s potentially quite exciting.
Now, Jane Eyre is a real titan and at a 130 minute running time, it looks like the production is investing wholly in the depths of the narrative. What kind of Blackeyed Theatre magic has been woven into this adaptation to keep it fresh, exciting and relatable for audiences?
I think that much of what I’ve mentioned is relevant here. First of all, yes the narrative is key, and there’s very little of the novel we’ve left out, despite the play coming in at two hours. Inevitably we’ve had to leave out some passages, but we’ve absolutely maintained the soul of the novel and remained extremely loyal to what Charlotte Brontë created. The design of the production places it very much in the time of the Brontës, and the music – a wonderful sweeping score by George Jennings – even uses the words of Charlotte Brontë’s poetry, which works beautifully. First and foremost, I suppose, I wanted to evoke for an audience the same strength of emotion you get when you read the novel, so it felt right to embrace the era and all the things that come with that.
I think the fact it runs at 2 hours in itself makes it an exciting adaptation. We really keep the story moving, and the use of live music and montages, combined with narration, help condense certain passages from the novel, enabling the production to really motor. Equally, I’d like to think that’s not at the expense of character development or emotional investment. The five actors are all exceptional, playing multiple characters, playing instruments, singing, dancing and speaking French! We create rooms various, a copse and carriage rides, as well as a horse and a dog, using physicality, props or a change of furniture. It’s unashamedly theatrical and fun.
Finally, I should mention Kelsey, who plays Jane. Any production of Jane Eyre is influenced massively by that central performance. In Kelsey, we found an actress with an incredible emotion and who, crucially, could balance the character’s undoubted strength with vulnerability. That vulnerability doesn’t make her any less of a person, of course. It makes her human, and it helps an audience root for her. And while the men surrounding her are clearly flawed, not to mention intellectually inferior, we must ultimately want Jane to love and be loved. Mr Rochester therefore, for all his faults, must be a man we can sympathise with on some level. I believe that relationship between Jane and Rochester is a key signifier of any adaptation of Jane Eyre.
I notice an age advisory too – is there anything to be aware of before we sit down with young family members? Is Bertha the culprit I wonder…?
There’s nothing overtly unsuitable for a child under 11, though there are a few scary moments. Bertha certainly adds a smattering of danger to proceedings, though I don’t want to give anything away.
To date, you’ve taken on a number of my personal favourites in the shapes of Frankenstein and Eyre, so I’m interested in hearing about any classics you love. Do you have sights set on any specific texts for the future?
Our next production is an adaptation of Conan Doyle’s final Sherlock Holmes novel, The Valley Of Fear, which will tour from September 2021. Beyond that, who knows. Wuthering Heights is wonderful, so perhaps we’ll return to the Brontës!
I also have to ask… can we anticipate the return of puppetry to your future work?
I’d love to use more puppetry. We invested a lot in Frankenstein’s monster and the results were amazing. I’d like to revive (if you’ll excuse the rather poor pun) that production at some point. Puppetry certainly has a place in what we produce, but if you use puppets, it’s important to do it well. Half-measures don’t work. For Frankenstein, puppetry was a key feature of the production, and there just hasn’t been that opportunity in the work we’ve done since. For instance, we could have portrayed Adèle in Jane Eyre with puppetry (given she’s a young girl), or created a puppet to represent the horse, for example. But I didn’t feel we needed it. As I say, if you’re using puppetry, it will become a defining element of a production, so use it wisely!
And finally, in just one sentence, why should audiences head online for a dose of Blackeyed Theatre’s take on Charlotte Bronte’s fantastic tale of Jane Eyre?
It’s beautiful, uplifting escapism, an aching love story, a celebration of the strength of the human spirit with a healthy dose of gothic horror thrown in!
So there you have it! Remember, Jane Eyre and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde are available to stream online here.