(Disclaimer: this review was written based on the first preview earlier this month.)
How do you begin adapting a story as epic as Jane Eyre? By making it even more epic, obviously. Charlotte Brontë’s classic and much-loved novel already covers about twenty years in total, beginning when its heroine is 10 years old – but Sally Cookson’s production at the National Theatre goes one better, taking us all the way back to the start of the story.
The opening scene reveals baby Jane’s tragic origins, as she loses first her parents and then her uncle, ultimately ending up the unhappy charge of her aunt Reed at Gateshead. And it’s here that we pick up the familiar story: a passionate and independent young girl, rejected and mistreated by almost everyone who should care for her, until she finally finds love with Mr Rochester, her brooding and brilliantly sarcastic employer. (Did I mention that Mr Rochester is one of my favourite literary leading men?) But all is not as it seems at Thornfield, and when a shocking secret is revealed, it seems Jane will once again be denied her happy ending. The story is part romance, part thriller, and full of twists and turns that keep you guessing right to the end.
This adaptation, a co-production with the Bristol Old Vic, is not for the faint-hearted (or weak-bladdered); lasting three and a half hours, it sets out to tell the story in all its detail, and with seemingly limitless energy. The company of incredibly hard-working actors must burn some serious calories, as they walk, run and climb ceaselessly all over Michael Vale’s ladder-strewn set, which resembles a big adventure playground. This constant movement is used particularly effectively in the transitions between scenes, filling in the gaps between the action, whether they last weeks, months or even years.
The play had no script when rehearsals began; it was devised by the company – so it’s no surprise that the small cast work perfectly together. A very physical piece of theatre, it feels at times more like a ballet than a play, the choreography working seamlessly with Benji Bower’s quirky choices of music. (I never would have thought a Gnarls Barkley song would work in a Victorian classic, which just goes to show what I know.) Singer Melanie Marshall stands out a mile in her glamorous red ball gown, an intense but eerily calm Bertha Mason who can wreak havoc with a single glance.
Felix Hayes’ Mr Rochester is a bit less elegant and a bit more foul-mouthed than we’re used to, but with an appealing, childlike vulnerability underneath his bushy beard. And Craig Edwards offers some much-needed light relief as a delightfully convincing Pilot the dog; any time he’s on stage the mood in the auditorium palpably lifts, and it’s hard not to watch him as he bounds around the stage. But undoubtedly the star of the show is Madeleine Worrall; she has all the impetuous passion of Jane as a child (so much so that you forget she’s a grown woman), but also the quiet, restrained emotion of the adult. Some of her best moments are when she says nothing at all, but lets her incredibly expressive face and movement do all the talking.
While there’s no doubt that this is a beautiful and very artistic production, it does occasionally feel that with so much time devoted to Jane’s inner monologue (other cast members providing the conflicting voices in her mind) and the passing of time, some of the most significant events are dealt with incredibly briefly – to the point where, if you didn’t know the story, you might wonder what had just happened. (Certainly the people behind us found it necessary to spend a frustrating amount of time discussing the plot in loud whispers.) So, if you haven’t read the book, it might be worth at least Googling the story before you go, to prevent confusion (for you) and irritation (for other people).
This new production is highly original, and not at all what I expected from an adaptation of one of my favourite novels – but that’s what makes it exciting. Without the distraction of spectacular sets or special effects, it becomes a psychological study of one woman’s personal journey, in which every other character and event feels secondary to that purpose. The play may move at a gentle pace, but it’s certainly never boring, as it breathes new life into both the classic story and its inspirational central character.