Think Jane Eyre and you probably think corsets, grand houses and Yorkshire moors – but maybe not confetti, flames and Gnarls Barkley? Then think again, because this production is imaginative, innovative and constantly surprising.
Director Sally Cookson works magic with this adaptation, devised by the company, which despite some odd pacing captures the spirit and elemental heart of the treasured novel. With an industrial-looking set that defies expectations of Brontё’s Yorkshire, and an impressive multi-roling cast (Laura Elphinstone is particularly adept at this), this acclaimed production took the Bristol Old Vic by storm last year and has been rewarded with a National Theatre transfer.
The inventive staging steals the show; Michael Vale’s angular wood and iron set serves as both bars and windows, as barrier and escape. Both natural expanse and man-made enclosure are provoked, with cast members providing additional scenic details through sound effects, music and movement.
As Jane, Madeleine Worrall makes a fluid transition from child to adult – from first mewling cries to romantic bliss – and is engaging throughout, retaining her childhood fire and passion into adulthood. The company explores her psychological state in a revealing, but not overwrought way, with an ensemble that resembles an Ancient Greek chorus in the way it echoes and questions her thoughts and decisions. Opposite Worrall, Felix Hayes makes for a suitably brusque and thorny Rochester. I’m glad the production has resisted the temptation to make him into a dreamy romantic hero, as he has sometimes been rendered; Hayes’s interpretation retains the unattractive qualities as well as the alluring ones – and how many times do we hear a character repeatedly cry “f**k!” in a period drama? Yet it seems exactly the kind of thing Brontё’s Rochester would say.
Naturally, elements of the original novel have shifted and been simplified, with some characters cut. And at three and a quarter hours long, it’s a good thing too. Yet the times dances by as we become engrossed even in this familiar tale. However, the pacing of the story is the main area where the production falters: in Bristol, it was delivered over two nights and was another hour longer, but as one show at the National I’m not convinced that the two acts are balanced correctly. With a lot of time taken over Jane’s childhood and school years (Lowood is depicted with effective harsh routine, the identical dresses lowered over the stage a sign of the lack of individuality), it drags out the story during Act I and leaves Act II very little space to fit in the rest of the tale. St John barely gets a look-in, and while he may not be the most exciting character ever to grace a page, it’s a key moment in Jane’s torn conscience. Also disappointing is the act of each deceased character disappearing down the same trapdoor in the stage – a tableau that lacks the subtlety or sincerity of the rest of the piece, being rather cartoonish in quality.
This devised play takes risks, most notably in the music. The folky accompaniment of the band works well, particularly in transitions between time and place, but it’s in the songs that the biggest surprises come, with ‘Mad About The Boy’ and ‘Crazy’ (Gnarls Berkley) the biggest gambles. Both pay off however, as the songs seem to take on a timeless quality and are delivered in the gorgeous vocals of Melanie Marshall – she also plays Bertha, and it’s perhaps a tad obvious, but her constant hovering presence throughout Jane’s adulthood is unnervingly effective.
Overall, this production is intelligent and captivating, with flashes of both witty humour and high drama that almost entirely dispelled my reservations about this page-to-stage adaptation. Certain striking images remain in fixed in your mind – the streaming veil, the poor schoolgirls’ dresses and Jane bursting open the window for a taste of freedom all spring to mind – but these powerful visuals are also backed by consistently strong performances. This is a wonderful opportunity for London audiences to encounter a taste of fantastic regional work – well worth a watch.
Jane Eyre is playing at the National Theatre until 10 January. For tickets and more information, visit the National Theatre website. Image by the National Theatre.