Charlotte Brontë’s mid Victorian Gothic novel set in her native Yorkshire created a storm in its time. Whether you are a full blown Brontë fan or have acquired a sense of the story through its various interpretations in film, TV or theatre, Jane Eyre has since remained in the national psyche in one form or another.
The overriding sense of the original story is bleakness. Young Jane is an orphan, who lives with distant relatives, the Reeds, where she is cruelly treated as ‘less than a servant’. She then has a harsh and severe education at Lowwood Hall run by the pious Mr Brocklehurst, where her only friend dies.
She goes on to take the job of a governess at Thornfield where the course speaking master Edward Rochester lives under the shadow of a dark past, but is moved by Jane’s directness and efficiency in improving his French ward Adèle, but fails to mention his first wife Bertha who is locked away somewhere in the house.
Jane Eyre is not a barrel of laughs.
In this stripped back and stunning adaptation, Sally Cookson has turned the greyness inside out and focussed on the incredible strength of spirit of this young woman whose character is diametrically opposed to the stereotypical woman of her time, and indeed could give lessons in plain speaking now.
From birth to Jane’s confined physical life, Nadia Clifford utterly embraces her character at every stage. With conviction, she portrays Jane as honest, sensitive and passionate on her journey to live independently at a time when the odds were particularly against her, seeing herself as nothing short of an equal to a man. ‘I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.’
Her bemusement at being asked to shed old boots and don fineries for her wedding to Tim Delap’s unkempt and ramshackle Rochester is especially stark.
Among the cast who take on several roles, Paul Mundell stands out with his beautifully enunciated Irish accent as Mr Brocklehurst, before bounding and wagging as Pilot the dog to the audience’s delight.
The poor demented Bertha Mason is represented by Melanie Marshall with haunting music that includes rich, tingly versions of Does that make me Crazy? and Mad about the Boy.
Michael Vale’s set, like a giant wooden playground with metal ladders, extracts necessarily highly physical performances from the ensemble cast who provide Jane’s inner thoughts and strike some dramatic tableaux.
Live music is played under a ceiling of Beaubourg style lights and pulleys that hold strings of surprises.
The whole performance is enclosed within three walls of giant white curtains that act as sponges for the lighting from Aideen Malone that evokes miserable rain streaks, the horrors of the red room where Jane is punished, and the blue of when ‘It is a bright sunny day. The rain is over and gone’.
Dominic Bilkey’s bone-shaking thunder and insistent rhythms of a steam train, that were signalling change in Brontë’s time, add to the atmosphere of this epic piece.
Sally Cookson’s radical version of Jane Eyre was originally presented in two parts at Bristol Old Vic. It then transferred to the National Theatre where it was re-imagined as a single performance which explains its three hour duration.
The call ‘It’s a girl!’ that opens and closes this audacious adaptation is a joyous battle cry.
Show times: Monday 15 – Saturday 20 May 2017 at 7.30pm
Tour continues to:
York Grand Opera House: 22-27 May 2017
New Victoria Theatre, Woking: 29 May-3 June 2017
Theatre Royal, Glasgow: 5-10 June 2017
Richmond Theatre: 12-17 June 2017
Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury: 19-24 June 2017
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff: 27 June-1 July 2017
Theatre Royal, Newcastle-upon-Tyne: 3-8 July 2017
Milton Keynes Theatre: 10-15 July 2017
Norwich Theatre Royal: 17-22 July 2017
Brighton Theatre Royal: 24-29 July 2017
Grand Theatre, Leeds: 31 July-5 August 2017
Belfast Theatre Royal: 21 – 26 August 2017
His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen: 28 August-2 September 2017
Birmingham Repertory Theatre: 4-16 September 2017