BWW Interview: Director Sally Cookson Talks JANE EYRE
Sally Cookson's past work includes inventive adaptations of Peter Pan, Hetty Feather and La Strada. Her acclaimed version of Jane Eyre, which first appeared at Bristol Old Vic in 2014, completes its 2017 UK tour with an encore run at the National Theatre from 23 September.
What was your first experience of theatre?
I was born into a family of actors, so there was no escape for me! It was part of my childhood. I was brought up going to the theatre - I have an early memory of seeing the actor who played the fairy godmother in a panto waving a magic wand, and I was convinced it was real. That did something to me; it made me want to tell stories and create that magic.
Were your parents encouraging?
They encouraged me to do anything but act! They knew the reality of being an actor is fuelled by rejection and unemployment. But I'd been bitten by the bug, I was determined to be an actor, so I went to LAMDA and acted for 10 years. Then my career morphed into directing.
It was at the Bristol Old Vic, and I was employed there as an actor under Andy Hay. I grew interesting in working with young people and become part of their Education Department, and then set up a youth theatre. Through that work, I realised I loved directing.
Does your acting experience help you as a director?
I understand what it's like for an actor to be on stage - that task they take on creating a character. I do work very much from an actor's point of view, and I have massive respect for them. They go through all sorts of terrible things - they bare their souls on stage and put themselves in such a vulnerable situation. Having worked for some monster directors in my time, I like to think I treat my actors better!
I was always in a cast with two women and eight men, which was very frustrating. Even at drama school there were more men than women in my year. I'm very aware of that and always try to address it - to make sure the balance is equal.
Do you think we need action like quotas to get others doing the same?
More people are starting to do it. Michelle Terry recently announced her commitment to a 50:50 gender split across all productions at the Globe, and Rufus Norris is really addressing the issue. It's become much more of a focus. People who aren't addressing it will be made to be aware and hopefully do something about it.
When did you first come across Jane Eyre?
The first time I encountered the story was as a child, watching the Orson Welles black-and-white film. I was beguiled by it. I loved Robert Stevenson's direction, the cinematography, the music by Bernard Herrmann.
I didn't actually read the novel until my early twenties, and I was gobsmacked when I realised how far the film was from the book. The film is all about Rochester - Jane is very passive and prepared to do anything for her hunky boss!
With the book, I was really inspired by and connected to the central character - the young woman trying to make her way in the world, her fierce determination to succeed and make something of herself, regardless of her lowly status. It became one of those books I always dug into now and again.
What struck you coming back to it now?
Now, in my middle age, I feel it's a story that resonates with the struggle for human rights, standing up for the powerless and battling injustice, and how everybody wants to live their lives and find fulfilment. We all need nourishment - spiritual, intellectual, emotional. Regardless of gender, the story speaks to everybody.
What do you love about Jane?
She's incredibly real. She has great self-knowledge and is true to herself all the way through her life, with this inner confidence despite the fact she's orphaned, has no money, is female. Her self-worth is incredible and becomes this rallying cry for the underclass, the abused everywhere. The moment when she confronts her aunt is almost a cheering moment for the audience in our production.
Have you always had a devising process?
Yes, it originated with working with young people. We'd make theatre together for the group, so everyone had a part. I've always been inspired by companies like Complicite - I'm a massive fan of Simon McBurney. And my tutor at LAMDA, Jane Gibson, taught me a lot about making theatre that's not just focussed on text.
How did you approach Jane Eyre?
We took the book and, as a company, all responded to the material. That means I'm not imposing my own interpretation, but really investigating what everybody in the room feels and thinks about this piece of literature. Everyone's ideas fed into the work. That takes a long time - often in you don't get that time. But it's a very rewarding way of working, because it gives everyone ownership.
Did you make some adaptation decisions beforehand?
I work very closely with a dramaturg or 'writer in the room'. Before rehearsal we go through the story, so for Jane Eyre it was Mike Akers. We filleted it and decided which episodes were in, the same for the characters. It's always a difficult process - I find it hard to get rid of anything. Mike's very good at that. We both agreed to focus on Jane's coming-of-age story, not just the Rochester romance.
So there's always a loose framework, and then in rehearsal we build on it or even dismantle parts of it if it's not working. But it's worth going in with some kind of structure, otherwise there's not enough time to explore.
How do you choose actors who can handle that process?
I have to spend a lot of time casting, because it's a particular way of working. Not everyone enjoys it. You can feel very vulnerable without a script, jumping off a diving board into an abyss! I have to have very courageous actors, who are interested in not just interpreting a role but taking on an entire story and being patient. So it's an intense casting process.
And then you're never quite sure until you get a group of people in a room together. With Jane Eyre we got this fantastic gathering of like-minded people. It was very difficult - we went through all sorts of emotional ups and downs as we made it - but we had trust there and respect, so even though it was tough we managed to get through it.
When do you assign roles?
I vaguely dished out roles beforehand, but actually as I got to know the actors some of the casting shifted. Because of the trust set up in the room, everyone very open to that.
Your use of music is fantastic - has that always been important to you?
Music's definitely always been important to my theatre-making. It's another way of accessing emotions, and it allows an audience's imagination to be triggered - it's so powerful. Benji Bower, who I work with a lot, understands the devising process. His music is devised with the action, in the room, so music becomes part of the story evolving - it's not separated.
For Jane Eyre, we felt anything goes - we didn't want to restrict the music to a certain genre or period. It's more "Let's see what feels right". Benji has such an eclectic musical mind - he would try out all sorts of things in rehearsal. He's very clever and witty, and his suggestions for songs like "Crazy" and "Mad About the Boy" were spot on.
How did the adventure playground-esque set develop?
When I had my initial chats with our designer Michael Vale, I knew I didn't want that traditional period costume drama set - some historical house being trundled on and off. I wanted a suggestion of architecture and landscape, and also to create a difficult space for the actors to work in, so it was hard work getting from one part of stage to another. Jane's journey is arduous, and that's represented in how the actors work on the stage.
For our initial workshop I asked Michael for levels in the rehearsal room, so they had to climb and it's not an easy space to navigate. He filled the room with platforms and ladders. I put a heavy skirt on Madeline Worrall, our original Jane, and said "Now climb up that ladder" - of course it was really hard, but great because it looked hard!
That must be tough over a run
There were lots of physiotherapy sessions...
What's it been like bringing in a new cast?
It was really extraordinary at first, going into rehearsals. I was so used to the rhythm of the original cast, so I found it quite strange hearing a new rhythm, a new way of interpreting the characters.
But Nadia Clifford, our new Jane, is just as brilliant and passionate, and has the same wonderful possession of the character that Madeleine did, even though they're very different. Madeline had this amazing emotional intensity close under the skin, ready to erupt at any moment, whereas Nadia's Jane buries her emotions deep in her centre - she protects herself with this tough armour, and she's more wiry and punky.
Have you made many changes?
Little changes here and there - it's always great to get opportunity to hone a piece of work. When you get a new cast they bring their own ideas, which only enhance the piece. I wanted to be really open to what they brought.
What's the response been like on tour?
It felt very special opening at The Lowry in Salford. We were really struck by the sense of ownership they have over this book, and the warmth of their vocal reaction. London audiences can be more reserved.
In Salford there was this massive reaction, talking before it, in the interval, exclaiming during the show when they felt surprised or appalled - they're not frightened of letting their voices be heard. We all had a visceral response to that. The actors have been having a great time.
It's great to have the show back at the National. How did that first come about?
Tom Morris, the Artistic Director of Bristol Old Vic, is also an Associate of the National, and he wanted it to run there - they were really open to it. Rufus Norris invited us and that was hugely exciting. In Bristol it was originally a two-parter, but for the National we knew they might possibly want to tour it, so the suggestion was to make it one show.
I initially thought "Ooh, crikey - is this going to work?", but I soon realised we were actually honing and distilling it and making it better. It became this intense epic hit in one go. Having that opportunity was really great.
Do you think people are now more receptive to devised theatre?
Some are still a bit nervous of it. I'm always surprised that it's considered radical - it seems entirely normal to me. I have noticed young companies are starting to work in a more devised way.
I'm interested in scripts too - I've been reading a lots of texts recently. Working with a writer on a piece would be interesting, using the devising process. A lot of new writing emerges through brainstorming ideas with actors - theatre's all about collaboration.
What else have you got coming up?
I'm devising a new version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for West Yorkshire Playhouse for Christmas.
Do you enjoy working at different venues?
I'm very committed to regional theatre, and as a freelancer I'm excited to do work wherever I can. I wouldn't want to work in just one place.
Would you like to see more directors doing family shows?
Every director should do it - there's nothing like having your work performed for young children who will immediately say whether they're engaged. If not, it's "I'm bored", "I want to go home". Adults are too polite, so we can take things for granted. Being aware of your responsibility to engage audiences is so important.
Finally, why do you think Jane Eyre is so enduring?
Those ideas about how to get the most out of life are still very resonant. Jane knows how to do it and she teaches us - how to figure out who you are, take action and take responsibility. That's what makes her a great heroine.
Watch a trailer below!
Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz, Brinkhoff/Moegenburg