Bristol’s Old Vic has brought Sally Cookson’s production of Jane Eyre to The National. Karen Campbell went to see if it does Charlotte Brontë and her fierce, bold heroine proud.
I’ve always quite liked Jane Eyre, with her forward-thinking, outspoken attitude in a world of corsets and male swagger, so I was very excited to see Bristol Old Vic’s production at The National.
Scaled down from last year’s five-hour staging to three and a half hours, Jane’s story is told by eight cast members amid an excellent and inventive set of timber and ladders and aided by clever lighting, a live band and even a bit of fire-power (well it is The National, darling). The brilliant Madeleine Worrall plays Jane from birth. Literally: Worrall’s opening scene sees her wailing as Jane is born, which is, quite frankly, a bit unnerving.
Director Sally Cookson invests in the home and school years in the first half, showcasing Jane’s hardships and vulnerabilities at the hands of Aunt Reed (Maggie Tagney), who cruelly and reluctantly brings up the orphaned Jane, and hard-nosed Lowood school principal Mr Brocklehurst (Craig Edwards). Here we see not only Jane’s feistiness but also her loyalty and compassion, especially when losing her friend Helen (Laura Elphinstone).
It isn’t until after the interval that things really get going, though, thanks to witnessing Jane’s blossoming and her meeting a certain Mr Rochester, played with bearded hipster swagger and crass aplomb by Felix Hayes. Jane is now governess to Rochester’s ward, the overly bubbly and pretty irritating Adele (Laura Elphinstone again).
Through great inner monologue pieces, Jane shares her growing fascination and infatuation with the gruff Rochester, which is spine-tinglingly portrayed by a version of Mad About the Boy sung by Rochester’s estranged wife, Bertha (the gorgeous Melanie Marshall).
Marshall’s Bertha is ever-present throughout the story, representing the hidden truth that poor Jane only learns on her wedding day. Her beautiful voice is haunting. Sublime folk melodies performed live really add depth to the story, bringing an air of calm amid the, at times, frantic ladder action.
As we all know, all ends well for Jane, who gets her man when Rochester finally tells her the full story of the wife in the attic and how he wants Jane to be his. Yet, despite the three-and-a-half hour running time, this, the crux of the story, felt slightly underdeveloped and I wasn’t quite as convinced of their love as in the book. I would have loved for some of the time dedicated to her childhood in the first act shifted to cover her feelings for Rochester.
Charlotte Brontë wrote Jane as a wonderfully fierce, independent feminist before we really knew what feminism was, so for that alone it’s wonderful. But for this adaptation, the true star of the show is the direction. The cast members seamlessly transfer roles, with a particular highlight being Craig Edwards’ portrayal of Rochester’s dog Pilot, which brings a welcome bit of light-hearted humour to proceedings. At times, you’re so busy watching his sleeping, twitching Pilot that you miss the main action. But we’ve all read the book, right?
The staging, cast and musicians are truly wonderful with Worrall’s Jane dominant throughout. And rightly so. I think Brontë would be proud.
Jane Eyre is at the Lyttelton Theatre, The National, London, until January.
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Karen Campbell is a life coach at www.your-dreamcatcher.com. She likes gin, James McAvoy and pretending she's not from Scunthorpe.