Jane Eyre is a novel that lives within the social consciousness, the name is recognised across nations and languages and the story is one that has been told over and over again. The plot is simple: a woman with no means falls in love with a man of great means. One of the reasons for its lasting appeal can be found in its refusal to be bound by these narrative conventions. Jane commands control over her life, she is adamant that she will have liberty. Nadia Clifford, a self-confessed ‘Bronte mega-fan’, portrays our plain heroine as fierce and highly emotionally strung. This is no quietly assured Jane, nor a softly spoken religious devotee, Clifford is less spirited than she is animalistic in her depiction. She howls at Mrs Reed and gnashes her teeth when challenged or wronged. Clifford is a frantic, interesting player to watch, paired beautifully with the gruff, robust energy of Tim Delap as Edward Rochester.
However it’s Melanie Marshall that steals the show in a captivating turn as Bertha Mason. Some 40 years after Gilbert and Gubar utterly altered our image of Bertha with The Madwoman in the Attic, we are offered a complex and haunting take on madness. She patrols the action, a figure of power and beauty in a striking red dress, a hypnotic musical accompaniment to the action. Although spoken about in the most violent terms, she is calm, serene and her tranquillity highlights the wild energy surrounding her.
Hannah Bristow is utterly convincing in her multi-rolling as she plays Helen Burns with perfect religious conviction and little Adele with a child’s impatience. Paul Mundell is a tail-wagging riot as faithful Pilot, and Evelyn Miller captures the unintentional tenderness of Bessie, but her Blanche and St. John never really get off the ground. This could be because the play was originally in two parts, here condensed for The National stage. This reduced version does leave a little to be desired with regards to character development; we barely meet Blanche, let alone see why she might be a compelling partner for Rochester.
The staging for Jane Eyre, put together by set designer Michael Vale, is deceptively complex. It looks minimal, a large wood and metal structure made up of ladders and platforms, it gives the actors a playful, dynamic space and they utilise every floorboard and step on the ladder. What Vale has done is remarkable, he makes something both bold and impressive and he can justify every inch of it. The play is given depth, the characters stride and climb endlessly and the audience receive a real sense of the movement and restlessness of Jane Eyre.
The musical score is striking (if occasionally overpowering), the stage is a marvel of depth and utility and the cast come together to bring a powerful, frantic assembly of energy to the stage. At times, the exclamations and expletives of passion can feel akin to madness, but it’s a madness to be swept up in, to revel in, and to join in.
Jane Eyre played at the National Theatre until October 21 2017.
Photo: Tristram Kenton