Adapted and directed by Polly Teale, from the novel by Charlotte Brontë
Arts Theatre, Cambridge, and touring
A plain girl in a dark blue dress reads aloud as an exotic beauty in fiery orange listens. As the girl in the blue reads, the other revels in its sensual possibility, dancing and clapping, even basking in the imaginary sea. A woman happens upon them, and scolds them; they answer defiantly back, simultaneously. Woman drags blue upstairs, orange clinging to blue's dress, and locks both in a tiny room. Blue becomes scared, screams for escape, and, as the door is opened, decisively shuts orange in the room, locking the door.
Thus Polly Teale's opening to her own adaptation of Jane Eyre beautifully captures the antitheses which it is about to explore: sensuality and starkness, listening and rejecting, and expression and repression.
For both actresses are playing the title role, although, locked upstairs, Myriam Acharki is simultaneously playing the incarcerated Bertha, Rochester's lunatic wife. Jane's repressed sensuality is Bertha's madness, creating a sliding scale from liberated passion to devouring sexuality. So when Bertha bangs on the door as Jane's conscience jumps, we see the literal frustrations of the imprisoned first wife as well as - metaphorically - the repressed desires of the second.
And there are plenty of the latter. Monica Dolan's diminutive, pedantic Jane Eyre briskly shakes hands with James Clyde's Rochester, while Acharki's Bertha, her dazzling orange dress revealing bare legs, writhes on the floor in a bliss of sexuality. We get the inverse too: at one point, Bertha steals down the sweeping staircase to set Rochester's bed alight, as Jane, across the stage, dreams erotically of doing exactly the same thing.
It's a brilliant device, and one that allows Teale to run her reading of the novel parallel to its theatrical life. Yet, perhaps inevitably with such a conceptualised take on a novel, you sometimes feel that you are getting not all of Jane Eyre, but a piece of her - and that Teale is essaying, rather than assaying, Brontë's novel.
You get the feeling, too, that the production itself came before the performances - while Dolan and Acharki are both impressive, partly because of the feminist adaptation, the main man seems rather one-dimensional; Clyde gives a wolf-like Rochester with real presence, but no real heart. The supporting cast are only really seen aggressively characterising just outside the limelight.
It's a shame that the adaptation runs into problems at the close of the novel, and that Bertha's death in the fire proves too great a hurdle for Teale's interpretation to theatrically surmount - rather than purging the evil's of Jane's passion, the fire seems to leave a live Bertha wandering meekly at Jane's side. The scene changes the let pace sag a little - all dry ice, floating clouds and cello (Daldry's An Inspector Calls, anyone?) and - as ever with physical theatre - a few pretentiously annoying decisions to counterpoint the many good ones (better not to mention the actor who has to play Rochester's dog) you occasionally become aware that the running time is just over three hours.
But on the whole, the best, vibrantly theatrical moments make up for the shortcomings, and - notably - if you haven't read the book, the story comes through clearly. It's worth saying too that the play feels comfortable as theatre rather than literature, and a few moments really do take your breath away - a novel achievement all too rare in novel theatricalisations, as the (ironically named) Good Company's Jane Eyre painfully proved a few years ago.
This Jane Eyre's not one for the kids then, but if you like the novel, or like the theatre, there's lots here to go on, and Shared Experience provide for a very stimulating evening; Teale's intelligent production is, at its worst, admittedly a little tedious, but, at its best, can feel like a breath of fresh air.
Louise Hill reviewed this production on its transfer to the Trafalgar Studios
Reviewer: Robert William