BWW Review: JANE EYRE, National Theatre
Three years after its Bristol Old Vic debut, Sally Cookson's fervently theatrical reimagining of Charlotte Brontë's novel returns to the National Theatre as part of a UK tour - with a new cast, but with its collective spirit intact.
There's certainly no literary stodginess to this adaptation, which has theatre in its very bones. Cookson's devising process and her committed ensemble provide creative, collaborative solutions to the problem of how to evoke, on stage, a vivid landscape, an imposing country house, an orphan horde or a tail-thumping dog.
Key to that is Benji Bower's cinematic, propulsive score - heartbeat and soul of the piece. It gives operatic voice to the "madwoman in the attic", Rochester's first wife Bertha Mason, softens into folk, or adds epic scale to the characters' inner and outer cries. Dominic Bilkey's thoughtful sound design provides further notes of poignancy and creeping horror.
Adding to the sensory torrent is Aideen Malone's gorgeous lighting. When young Jane is confined to the Red Room by her venomous aunt, the child's overwhelming fear is externalised by a crimson wash - terror so tangible you can almost taste it. Hand-held lights are also used to great effect, evoking the flickering of a fire or the shadowy secrets of Thornfield Hall.
Michael Vale's set is a striking construction of ladders, platforms and ramps: adventure playground-meets-obstacle course. It's marvellously versatile, providing the spine of every location as well as suggesting Jane's isolation, her meager existence, her imprisonment, and her constant labouring to survive and move up in the world.
Yet the cast's business can also be a distraction. At times, we're more aware of their effort than the effect - admiration for what amounts to theatrical circuit training - and while it's a relief to escape the confines of costume drama, distinctions of place and status are rather vague, and occasional key moments, like Jane's immediate reaction to the Bertha revelation, are swallowed up by movement.
Part of the latter is due to the pacing of this slightly overlong, three-hour-plus production - originally a two-part adaptation. Cookson's focus on Jane's life story, rather than just the romance, is admirable, but dramatically the evening feels slightly unbalanced. It's too long before we embrace the true Gothic horror of Thornfield, and before Jane is in a position to actively realise her desire for self-determination.
But Cookson's production is nevertheless thrilling in the way it communicates elemental force and feeling: from the buffeting wind to the dehumanising institutionalisation of Lowood or Jane's rage against injustice.
Nadia Clifford is a convincing match for Jane, in sturdy, diminutive stature and in the way she holds herself like a watchful fighter, ready to spring. Vocally, there's some odd darting between registers, otherwise she's a fierce orator as she rails against the half-life imposed on her as a woman - and one without means.
Jane is continually told to be grateful for the bare necessities, but what is life without mental and physical stimulation, without ambition, liberation and purpose? Why should only some in society be allowed to ask for more? It's a message that blazes forth in Cookson's version, just as relevant now.
Jane's internal voice is drawn out via the cast working as a chorus, who also physicalise her sense of entrapment in domestic spheres and yearning for release - this independent spirit straining against closed windows and locked doors.
Throughout, Melanie Marshall's exquisite singing binds her to Jane. Here, Bertha is clearly her double, unbound; while Jane might wish to wound or master Rochester, or take a revolutionary stand against social convention, it's Bertha who does so. The jealousy that comes with love burns in Jane, and erupts in fire from Bertha.
Tim Delap provides an appropriately commanding, impatient Rochester, though some of his grander pronouncements don't quite convince. He's best showing that glimmer of vulnerability, as Rochester once again seeks healing in another; Jane, by contrast, always finds strength within herself.
Evelyn Miller is excellent as a kindly Bessie, aristocratic Blanche, and in particular the creepily manipulative clergyman St John. Hannah Bristow saves Helen Burns from insipid sainthood, giving fervour to her views, Lynda Rooke is a spiteful Mrs Reed and benevolent Mrs Fairfax, and Paul Mundell is a constant scene-stealer as Rochester's excitable dog Pilot.
This is Brontë writ large and with mighty power.
Photo credit: Brinkhoff Mogenburg