Jane Eyre

Cathy Marston
Northern Ballet
Sheffield Lyceum Theatre

Northern Ballet Dancers in Jane Eyre Credit: Emma Kauldbar

Northern Ballet has surpassed itself in a brilliant production of Jane Eyre which presents the plot of Brontë’s novel with admirable clarity and draws together all the creative components of Cathy Marston’s new ballet into a harmonious whole.

Marston and Designer Patrick Kinmonth have collaborated on the scenario, and Philip Heeney’s score combines original composition with echoes from other established composers. The emotional range of the music from plangent Schubert melodies to dynamic percussive sequences perfectly complements the emotional range of the narrative line and provides a springboard for Marston’s thrilling and varied choreography.

The coherence of this artistic collaboration is echoed in Kinmonth’s set and costume design. The Derbyshire moors where the runaway Jane Eyre nearly dies is simply represented by an abstract pattern of pathways which cross and re-cross the landscape and are visually dominant throughout the action. Interior scenes are created by drawing huge curtains covered with abstract shapes which could represent the internal features of a large house.

The colour palate of the production suggests the muted colours of the moorland except for one occasion when this convention is deliberately and violently broken.

The scenario and set design give rise to another interesting convention. The action of the ballet starts late in the novel, after Jane is rescued by St John Rivers, and the upper area provides a viewing space for the mature Jane to recall memories of her unhappy childhood, her miserable experiences at Lowood School, her conflicted love affair with Rochester and the disastrous outcome of the potentially bigamous marriage.

The ballet essentially focuses on Jane’s emotional journey, and to this end a group of eight male dancers, called by Marston the D-Men, are summoned at moments when she is deeply emotionally conflicted. Her suffering and anguish are expressed through violent interaction with the group of male dancers. This is entirely appropriate, since in Marston’s feminist interpretation of the novel, it is the men she encounters that cause her suffering, grief, and betrayal.

The scenario and choreography provide opportunities for two dancers, Dreda Blow as the mature Jane and Antoinette Books-Daw as the young Jane, to give full rein to the emotive range of the character and to express this with exemplary skill and sensitivity.

Books-Daw takes us through the early days as the unwanted and despised ward of Mrs Reed, a sneeringly cold performance by Aileen Ramos Betancourt, and Sarah Chun and Abigail Prudames as her daughters. In this sequence, the choreography and musical accompaniment is particularly effective in showing Jane being bullied by the obnoxious John Reed, her cousin, a convincingly brutal performance by Matthew Koon.

The action changes to Lowood School where the bullying is continued by sadistic Headmaster, Reverend Brocklehurst, played by a dominating Mlindi Kulashi, and the choreography is again extremely effective in showing the half-starved girls engaging in meaningless and menial activities in an atmosphere of hypocritical sanctity. Here Jane also witnesses the death of her dearly loved friend Helen, another emotional trauma to deal with.

Later, Jane goes on to Thornfield Hall and the slowly burgeoning relationship with Rochester. The relationship is given complex expression in a sequence of encounters, expressively performed by Books-Daw and Javier Torres as Rochester. Torres is a convincing Rochester, handsome, autocratic, arrogant, dominating, who occupies an outsize chair as if it is a throne. I was particularly impressed by the way he used abrupt leg movements to command Jane’s obedience, reminiscent of a similar gesture in Millais’s Isabella, and then fascinated to find that the leg gesture was later repeated in this and other relationships as a symbol of power. At one point when the love relationship is established, it is Jane’s upwardly pointing leg that dominates the tableau group.

There is so much more of interest to draw attention to: Pippa Moore gives a brilliant comic performance as Housekeeper Mrs Fairfax; Rachael Gillepsie is delightfully young and irrepressible as Rochester’s ward and probable illegitimate daughter; Victoria Sibson is terrifyingly out of control as Bertha Mason, Rochester’s first wife; and Sean Bates as St John Rivers is as cold, cerebral and constricted in movement, as Rochester is expansive and passionate.

This is a complete and harmonious production, with outstanding performances from every member of the cast, whether in groups, small parts or principal roles. The interpretation of Brontë’s novel is apt and persuasive, and the attention to detail in the setting, characterisation and performance is impressive. A welcome addition to Northern Ballet’s repertoire.

Reviewer: Velda Harris