The problem with staging a classic novel is that everyone has a slightly different view of how it should be done – many have tried and few have fully succeeded. The benchmark for this sort of work, of course, is the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby back in the early 1980s which set about reproducing and, dare I say it, enhancing the complete text. Jane Eyre, a collaboration from the National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic based on the novel by Charlotte Bronte tries a similar tack and covers, as far as I can recall, all key incidents from the original. This makes for a somewhat overlong evening – unsurprising as in its first incarnation the production was (again like Nick Nick) two separate plays.
This is a defiantly feminist reading of the text, devised by the original company and marshalled by director Sally Cookson. Madeleine Worrall does a fine job in capturing and portraying Jane’s uncompromising spirit, often seen as defiance by her contemporaries. She transcends the roles imposed on her by her family and society and goes on a literal journey of self-discovery. Presented as a series of set piece challenges, Jane moves from location to location gathering inner strength as she goes and always recognising when it is time for her to leave and move on. Worrall is completely believable and shows the heroine’s fortitude and resilience.
As the other half of the romance element of the story, Felix Hayes is not in the usual mould of Mr Rochesters. This at first comes as a surprise as we have come to expect a strapping, brooding hero. While Hayes is aiming at the latter, he sometimes comes across more as distracted than distracting although his performance gains in strength as the piece proceeds. Melanie Marshall is a beautifully clear singer giving literal voice to the little seen (in the book) Bertha Mason. The surprise inclusion of the songs Mad About The Boy and Crazy are shiver inducing.
Most of the remaining cast – and it’s surprising to realise in the final line up how few of them there are – play multiple roles and act as an ensemble. Among these Laura Elphinstone stands out as a saintly Helen Burns, a mysterious Grace Poole, a spirited Adele and a sombre St. John Rivers. Credit too to Craig Edwards who as well as playing human characters takes on the role of Pilot, Rochester’s faithful dog, and wins over the audience with nothing more than a piece of knotted rope for a tail.
The activity centre/playground like setting by Michael Vale irked me, I’m afraid. While I could see the point of the choice, it became very repetitive watching the cast scurrying around the stage and climbing ladders for the umpteenth time. As a visual metaphor for Jane’s struggles it passed muster, but this aspect was rather laid on with the proverbial trowel. Aideen Malone’s use of light, however, was masterly in conveying mood and tension. I well remember the nightmares I had on first reading the book (probably an adaptation) as a child of the scenes early on when Jane is locked in the Red Room as a punishment. All the horrors came flooding back through the mood created by the skilled lighting design.
This was not really a Jane Eyre for a family audience, though, the tone being very dark indeed – who remembers Rochester swearing quite so bluntly when he falls off his horse, for instance? Neither is it for traditionalists who expect lavish costuming and photogenic locations – the horse that Mr Rochester falls from is totally left to the imagination. This is defiantly a stage adaptation calling on us to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts” and it is here where the production is most successful. Carriages are conveyed masterfully by the actors running on the spot, window frames are held by the cast and when Jane “opens them” the resulting rush of wind is delivered by the ensemble flapping her skirts. Particularly effective is a large trapdoor downstage centre into which actors walk when their character has died.
Jane Eyre was a good choice for the National Theatre to make for this, their second broadcast. It is ultimately about someone breaking free from the shackles of moral, spiritual, intellectual and even actual confinement and like Jane we can hopefully look forward to a brighter future.