Jane Eyre

Charlotte Brontë
National Theatre - Bristol Old Vic
Plymouth Theatre Royal

Taking a well-loved novel and translating it to the stage is not for the faint-hearted (neither is sitting through more than three hours of the end result) but Sally Cookson (Olivier-nominated Hetty Feather) rises to the challenge with an engaging and innovative Jane Eyre.

Charlotte Brontë’s epic tale of love and survival is stripped to its very corset whalebones, reflected in Michael Vale’s sparse adventure playground-esque set, and themes of independence and equality explored in a slightly overlong, episodic, coming-of-age piece.

Starting life four years ago as a rough outline drawn up by Cookson and dramaturg Mike Akers presented to the original company just eight weeks before showtime at Bristol Old Vic, the resulting devised two-parter has been revived as a single (long) event by the National Theatre touring until the autumn when it will start its Lyttelton run.

Cookson captures Brontë’s wry social commentary and Jane’s tough but determined journey to fulfilment in an interesting and compelling piece that is not without its difficulties but well worth the ticket price.

Opening with dreaded speaking in unison and adults playing children, the back-story of tragic deaths, broken promises and a Cinderella-like existence is deftly dispatched in efficient unappealing short order but sinking hearts are soon won over as the story proper takes hold.

Exhaustingly on stage throughout, diminutive Nadia Clifford is a feisty and believable Jane. Her tousled-haired, quick-tongued orphan is transformed with just the assistance of stays, hairpins and skirts to a strong-minded, capable governess striving for education and escape from the constraints of her lot as an orphan, a woman and her class.

Whispering voices provide internal commentary on choices and situations not quite replacing the anguished musings of the heroine of the novel but filling out the character from cypher to plausible protagonist as Jane refuses to have her wings clipped and strives to fly free.

The remaining nine actors multi-task, populating the stage with not just the chosen characters but maids, schoolchildren, fellow travellers and more with just the odd smock or bonnet to ring the changes and Dan Canham’s slick choreography nailing the ensemble physicality. Fusty portraits and drab uniforms suspended from the flies move the action from Gateshead to Lowood, floating window frames and hovering lamps bring Thornfield to life with little more than a delve under the boards for sandwiches, books or a blanket all the props needed.

Paul Mundell is on point as a sanctimonious, stovepipe-hatted Brocklehurst, the conflicted Mason… and an endearing dog bringing much-needed comic relief as the tail-wagging, ebullient Pilot while Evelyn Miller is convincingly haughty as husband-hunter Blanche, motherly as salt-of-the-earth maid Bessie and cold as religiously fervent St John.

Lynda Rooke contrasts a kind and bumbling Mrs Fairfax with a nasty Aunt Reed whose ultimate betrayal is to inflict even more pain on the resented cuckoo in her nest. Tim Delap’s mercurial Rochester is rather stereotypical and attracts little empathy with an absence of clear affection for Jane throwing a rather new light on his bigamous intentions, immoral suggestions and somewhat cavalier attitude to his ward, possible daughter Adele.

And all the while rich-toned mezzo soprano Melanie Marshall smoulders, ever-present in her flame-red dress, as brooding Bertha not so quietly going mad in the attic.

Music pervades the piece with Matthew Churcher, Alex Heane and David Ridley jammed into a corner of the metal and wood set with drum kit, double bass, piano and guitars providing texture (and escaping to play bearded bairns and more) complimenting Dominic Bilkey’s soundscapes and Aideen Malone’s lighting projected on rippling white curtains—particularly evocative in the red room and rain-swept moorland scenes.

A very capable cast, some artistic licence and a pared-down slick production—Jane Eyre is definitely worth a look.

Reviewer: Karen Bussell