Review: Jane Eyre, Bristol Old Vic

Jane Eyre company, by Simon Annand

Putting a four-and-a-half-hour, two-part adaptation of Jane Eyre on the main stage at Bristol Old Vic is a brave thing to do. Seeing both of them in one day is a bit of a slog (although not compulsory!), but overall well worth the investment. Director Sally Cookson was adamant that although previous adaptations of the book have truncated it, she wanted to stage the whole thing.

It’s a good production, and extremely well-acted, but I do question whether it justifies its length. Cookson states that she felt that Jane’s early life is as important as what happens to her later in life, but I’m not sure that I agree. I also remain unconvinced that it’s as modern a story as Cookson claims. Jane has some lines that strike a chord, and the struggle of women to throw off the shackles of patriarchal oppression is always a winner. Ultimately, though, the subordination of the women, to men and to God, cannot be escaped, simply because the book is so rooted in its place and time.

For the same reason, it felt as though the Gothic elements of the book could have been played up more – there’s a couple of good thunder storms, but the traumatic red room (not in a Fifty Shades of Grey way) and the creepy Thornfield Hall, complete with mad woman in the attic, are not especially scary. Some of the modern touches are nice, though (I’m pretty sure Rochester doesn’t say “fuck” quite so many times when he falls off his horse in the book…) but it remains, for me, an old-fashioned story, for all of Jane’s fiery temper and yearning to be free of a life built around sewing and cooking.

All that said, though, it’s a show I’m glad to have seen. It’s great to see Bristol Old Vic supporting, nurturing and presenting new work of this scope. Cookson and her cast have created an energetic and vivid production. Madeleine Worrall’s Jane is onstage for the full show, and is impressively tender and strong. Life throws a lot at her (it’s very grim up North), and she’s still standing at the end. Also impressive is Felix Hayes as Rochester, all gruff and bearded, gradually realising his own love for Jane. Melanie Marshall, as Bertha, is superb. Her singing voice is simply stunning, and the acoustics at the Old Vic could have been designed for a voice like hers.

There’s an awful lot of ladder-climbing, thanks to Michael Vale’s multi-level set, and an awful lot of walking-with-purpose. Both of these things get distracting after a while, although they are effective at making Thornfield Hall feel huge and at making the stage feel busy. The pared-back staging has some lovely moments, but over the course of the show it begins to feel like we’ve seen some of these devices before. Benji Bowers’s music really elevates the piece – there are moments that drag which are lifted by the score. It complements the action beautifully, is used to great effect to build atmosphere, and is pretty much pitch-perfect.

The first half of part one is rather one-note; it’s just one damn thing after another. Jane’s transformation from tormented schoolgirl to self-possessed governess consequently feels rather rushed, especially as the first half as a whole is terribly drawn-out. The pace picks up in the second half, and the love that blossoms between Jane and Rochester is well done. The first half of part two is similarly pacy and entertaining, and then it flags again in the second half. Frustratingly, it feels like a brilliant show struggling under the weight of extraneous narrative. There’s some fat to be trimmed here, but all in all it’s an enjoyable and extremely well-acted show.

Jane Eyre (Part One and Part Two) is at Bristol Old Vic until 29 March. For more information and tickets, visit Bristol Old Vic’s website.

Photo by Simon Annand.

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney was Managing Editor of A Younger Theatre for four-and-a-half years. She is now Managing Editor of The Space, Web Editor for the British Council Theatre and Dance team, and a freelance writer and editor.