Interview with Nick Lane

This autumn, Blackeyed Theatre will be embarking on a nationwide tour of its latest production, a new adaptation of Jane Eyre. I caught up with writer Nick Lane to find out more about his adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic.

How did you first get into writing?
I guess you’d say it was a combination of good and ill-fortune. I always wanted to write, as a kid – and outside of the normal child-like things of playing out, riding bikes, drawing pictures and so on – it was the thing I enjoyed most. I used to make up stories to help my sister get to sleep at night, I tried writing plays (poor rip-offs of the Goon Show; I was bought a book of their scripts) when I was about ten… but I fell into acting in school plays and ended up, with extreme good luck I’d say, getting into acting as a career. I certainly enjoyed it, but in my mid-twenties I was involved in a fairly nasty car accident – while filming for the BBC, incidentally – which permanently damaged my back so I can’t really turn my head very well, my back is fused in one position, I have an odd walk… all good stuff! That I’m alive is clearly the most important part of this particular detail, and, you know, it was an accident.

So that’s the ill-fortune part – my accident was always going to reduce the number of acting roles I was able to do as my spine fused over a period of years… but here’s the good fortune bit: one of the acting jobs I had, when I was seventeen, was playing Oliver Twist in John Godber’s magnificent adaptation for Christmas at Hull Truck back in 1987. John and I became very good friends and I worked for him on several occasions between 1987 and 1996, the year of the car accident. John knew that I had an interest in writing and, as he could see my back was getting worse, in late 1998 he approached me to ask whether I’d be interested in adapting Frankenstein for Hull Truck’s Spring 2000 season. If you look closely at John’s wrist you can probably still see the marks from where I bit his hand off! John mentored me through the writing and directing process, I got another gig from there and I was off and running. I owe it all to John, really, and if I hadn’t met him… well, who knows what I’d be doing now? So yes, good and ill-fortune combined.

Can you tell me more about your production of Jane Eyre?
I can certainly try, though Adrian (McDougall, Artistic Director of Blackeyed Theatre and the director for this production) might well be in a better position to give you the finalised vision! The thing I really like about working with Adrian and Blackeyed is the artistic support and freedom offered. After our last collaboration (Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four) we sat down and discussed whether I’d be interested in writing for the company again (which of course I was) and what titles we might both enjoy. It’s something we’ll get into in one of the later questions but the book is so iconic, so beautiful and – in terms of its protagonist’s narrative through-line – so timeless that to be given the opportunity to explore it was an honour.

I’d say it’s largely faithful to the source material – it’s set in the same period, the characters remain true to Charlotte Bronte. Naturally with a cast of five there’s multi-roleplaying and the cast size has necessitated certain cuts and changes but we’ve brought the book, and the truth of the character arcs, to the stage. With such stunning source material how could you not?

What else can I tell you without giving anything away? It’s an actor-musician show… Adrian has assembled a tremendous cast of actors who also happen to be terrific musicians. I’m extremely jealous of the lot of them; I can’t play a note. At school in music lessons I was given two wooden sticks to bang together and made to sit away from everyone else!

There are direct audience address; I should say that – I’ve always enjoyed the intimate, almost confessional nature of that style and with Jane Eyre written as an autobiography it suits the story well I’d say. There will be physicality within the production to convey certain scenes… those were easy bits within the script for me; I’d write a rough description of what I saw in my head knowing that Adrian and his team would just make it loads better!

What attracted you to adapting this particular story for the stage?
It’s simply a wonderful tale. I’d directed a version for Hull Truck six years ago by a friend of mine and, having re-read the book then in preparation for the gig I was struck by how powerful Jane’s path was – and if it had made me feel that way in the 21st century, the effect on its readers when it was first published must have been seismic! Here’s a woman who, despite all the suffering, all the cruelty, all the heartbreak, remains true to her own heart and reveals to the reading world the importance and liberty contained within self-determination.

Looking again last year when I knew I was going to adapt it I saw that aspect of the book of course, but there were all the other elements too – it’s funny, it’s tragic, in its depiction of societal positions and manners it’s satirical… and of course it’s really quite spooky. The challenge of finding ways to bring that to the stage with economy and fluidity… that sort of thing is very exciting to me. Really though, I’m a romantic at heart and to get a chance to bring my take on one of the classic romances to the stage is irresistible.

How did you go about adapting Jane Eyre?
Ha! I can tell you what I’ve told other people who’ve asked this – very carefully! It’s my insecurity I’m sure, and no-one else’s – certainly I’ve been supported tremendously throughout the writing process – but never have I felt more aware of being a male writer than when I was bringing this most iconic female character from the book into the script I was writing. I knew I could put the adaptation together but if I got Jane wrong, if she didn’t act or feel like the character Charlotte Brontë created, I’d have failed.

I generally start with structure. Adrian and I discussed how many actors I’d have to play with and I noted down who would play what, how that would work for their journeys on and off the stage, how it might affect who would provide music for certain scenes and so on. I had an opening image in mind; I knew how I wanted to frame the story, and with the greatest guide ever in Charlotte Brontë, off I went.

And here’s when the jitters started. Not only had I directed my friend Laura’s terrific version in 2013 (so there was that to measure up to), and not only is it a novel revered globally for a variety of reasons – and, I’d say, particularly by women – it was also one of my mum’s favourite books. As a young girl she apparently vacillated between Mr. Rochester and Mr. Darcy as to which was the most romantic… and which of the romances was the most complete. That’s definitely not for me to say, but there was that too – my mum died in 1998 (so never got to see anything I’ve ever written on stage) and there was no way I wanted to disappoint her memory.

Fortunately for me I have a friend, Tabitha who – as well as being fiercely intelligent and super-honest as a person – reads Jane Eyre annually and, though she’d never profess to be so, is something of an expert on the subject. Such is her generosity that she looked over each draft once I completed them. My thought with each draft, then (and my fear, I guess), was, “Will Tabitha see Jane in what I’ve written?” I’m happy to say that she did, and from there I proceeded – still cautiously, for I know people see Jane in different ways, but with a growing confidence. Thanks, Tab

What can audiences expect from your production?
First and foremost, I hope the audience might expect a great night at the theatre because that’s what Adrian and I, along with the cast, the whole creative and backstage team and everyone involved with Blackeyed Theatre want for them. If the audience is new to the story then this is of paramount importance and it follows the high standards set and maintained by Blackeyed in the past. And for the audience members who are familiar with the source material, they can expect the romance and wit – not to mention some of the gothic sensibilities – of the book.

Why do you think Jane Eyre still appeals today?
It’s a hugely important novel – a novel of hope, of empowerment, of victory over those people and elements of ill-fortune that conspire against us… as important now as it was then it is also a novel that demands we see women not as objects to be admired, scorned or married off but as strong and independent equals.

Outside of its message of course – though the two are inextricable really – it’s a beautiful, painful romance told, with wit and tenderness, from the point of view of a character with an unbreakable spirit.

That’s why, I reckon. Well, that’s why for me. The truth about great literature is that you could ask one hundred fans of the novel the same question and get one hundred different answers… and they’d all be right.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the production?
I hope everyone has a good time. And if that means they leave moved to tears or laughing, or extolling the virtues of the cast, the music, the production as a whole… any of those things – I hope that they enjoy themselves above all else. From a writing perspective… I hope those who have read the book feel it in the adaptation, and – being a fan of the novel – I hope it tempts those that haven’t into getting hold of a copy and reading it for themselves. Then coming back again, and bringing their mates!

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Image: Alex Harvey-Brown



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