The National Theatre should truly be commended for looking outside the often impenetrable boundary of the M25 for theatrical inspiration. This imaginative re-working of Charlotte Brontë's classic novel 'Jane Eyre' premiered at the Bristol Old Vic last year, directed by the creative genius that is Sally Cookson. The epic tale was divided into two parts in Bristol, but it was perhaps a wise decision by the NT Artistic Director Rufus Norris to insist on squeezing the action into just one evening's entertainment, albeit three and a quarter hours in length.
Many of us recall Brontë's novel from our school's syllabus with fondness and one of the winning elements of this theatrical adaptation is that it allows the audience member (just like the reader of the novel) to evoke the world of Jane Eyre in their own imagination. There are no grand sets or props to depict Gateshead Hall or Thornfield Hall, indeed these famous settings (along with Lowood Institution) appear in the form of a simplistic and modernist climbing frame-esque structure of wooden platforms and metal ladders. The actors themselves even become part of the walls at various intervals. The beauty of theatre here suggests to and inspires the audience member. Cookson also uses lighting effects on the blank white cloth backdrop and music from a live band centre stage to great effect to create moods of danger, sorrow and optimism in turn.
For those who haven't read the novel, Jane Eyre tells the biography of an orphan girl (with striking similarities to Brontë's own life story) raised in the North of England. Her aunt Mrs Reed succumbs to a dying wish and promises to take her in and raise her as her own, but fails to show Jane any love or kindness as a child. She is shipped off to Lowood, a school for orphaned girls, where she continues to experience the cruelty and harshness of life, but forms a connection with a schoolmate Helen Burns, who soon dies of consumption in her arms. She eventually becomes a teacher at Lowood and after advertising as a governess, she is summoned to Thornfield Hall to educate one Edward Rochester's French ward Adele (possibly the result of a French love affair). The emotional relationship between Eyre and Rochester builds momentum through their intellectual exchanges, but he has a secret and an ominous presence in the house threatens both mentally and physically. Will their love overcome the obstacles of other more 'socially suitable' suitors, tragedies of burning buildings and the reveal of Rochester's dark secret?
The ensemble of 10, with the exception of a powerfully understated Madeleine Worrall in the title role, take on multiple roles irrespective of age, gender or race. Melanie Marshall makes for a haunting and commanding presence as Bertha Mason, the 'mad woman in the attic,' through musical interludes. Her vocal performances are mesmerising, however the decision to include such well-known tracks as Noël Coward's "Mad About the Boy" and Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" distracts, although they are thematically justified. There is also always going to be the danger of unintended laughter from the audience, when male adult actors play a dog or a toddler on stage. Pilot the dog's inclusion offers the audience a perspective of relationships, as he can pour physical affection on Jane without question, however his master Mr Rochester cannot. But I did find he was inevitably upstaging his 'human' colleagues on occasion. Theatrical devices such as the ensemble playing the voices of Jane's conscience are impeccably employed throughout her journey as a young lady seeking the freedom to fend for herself and exercise and educate her mind in the 19th century.
Sally Cookson's direction is undoubtedly inventive and moulds an evening of exceptional, stylised theatre at the Lyttelton that breathes new life into this well-worn classic. After this -her NT debut - and her recent West End mounting of 'Hetty Feather,' I look forward to seeing more of her terrific work in the future.
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"The whole is done, under Cookson’s direction, with great elan. But if I couldn’t join in the final cheers, it is because this kind of hectic abridgement offers a demonstration of theatrical skill rather than the moving accumulation of detail you get in great fiction."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"This is a production full of intelligent detail...Original, engaging and unexpectedly funny, it slightly overdoes the emotional restraint: Worrall’s Jane is admirably feisty, though less assured in tender moments."
Jane Shilling for The Telegraph
"This intelligent, exhilaratingly theatrical response is like seeing an old friend and seeing them afresh."
Sarah Hemming for The Financial Times