REVIEW: Jane Eyre, National Theatre ✭✭✭✭

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Jane Eyre

Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre
4 Stars
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This play began life as two full evenings at the Bristol Old Vic, which first performed the work in 2014. It comes to the National now in a condensed version, which still works out as a long evening – 3 hours and 30 minutes including interval. The play has been devised by the Company from Charlotte Brontë’s famous novel of 1847 under the direction of Sally Cookson: at some points it makes interesting departures from the original but textually in many respects it is surprisingly faithful.

What strikes you first of all as you take your seat in the Lyttelton is the set – the work of Michael Vale. The stage is open and framed by white drapes which rise to full height. They surround a complex set of wooden walkways, ramps and steps, roughly in a U shape and all accessed by a variety of ladders. Occasionally period props and furniture are introduced, but only fleetingly. Overall this is an abstract set designed to generate an impressive sense of momentum and to summon up a variety of locales.

From the very start of the action when adult Jane (Madeleine Worrall) wails and howls to simulate her birth, characters scurry and scatter, run, climb, cling and clamber all over these structures. Each actor – there are seven, plus musicians – must cover literally miles in the course of an evening in which we are meant to feel the huge emotional journey Jane travels – from the misery and neglect of her childhood with her cruel relatives, to the different oppressions and punishing disciplines of Lowood School, through to her eventful and defining time as governess at Thornfield Hall and her flight to sanctuary with St John Rivers and his sister.

What then does the production give us that could change our perception of a familiar novel in the canon? The most obvious answer is that it is a strongly feminist version of the story that focuses as much if not more on the struggles of Jane’ upbringing as on the melodrama of Thornfield. We see Jane standing up to her vile family, asserting herself against the bullying and meanness of the charity school regime, and taking a stand for the rights of the disadvantaged. These aspects were always there in the story but dramaturg Mike Akers has done the book a service here by stripping away Victorian reticence and anxiety over female self-assertion.

We have the story free of varnish and patina and it is wholly an improvement. We also get a wider and richer palette of minor characters – the sanctimonious and cruel Mr Brocklehurst, the sickly and saintly Helen Burns and the harridan aunt, Mrs Reed. This is a refreshing, timely and well thought-through concept that give a toughness to the story and a full bloom to the characters that should put paid to our memories of the many more sentimental versions that have dominated on stage and screen hitherto.

Jane Eyre, National Theatre

It really helps to appreciate that by the time Jane arrives at Thornfield Hall as the governess to Mr Rochester’s ward she is an experienced teacher and a fully formed person, not a timid and impressionable ingénue. As a result the relationship with Rochester is equal and sparky right from the start, which makes their interaction so much more lively and interesting overall.

Apart from Jane and Rochester the cast all take multiple roles and acquit themselves supremely well in differentiating between them. Craig Edwards nearly steals the show altogether as Rochester’s dog, Pilot, as uncanny and convincing a piece of canine imitation as I have ever seen in the theatre – all based on the neat intuition that a dog can express the emotions that Rochester is too twisted up with anxiety and guilt to articulate. Laura Elphinstone brings a wan stoicism to Helen Burns, a contrasting vivacity and energetic charm to Adele and a sanctimonious rigour to St John Rivers – you really would not think the same person was inhabiting each of these roles. Simone Saunders takes the opportunities available in the more limited roles of Bessie, Blanche Ingram and Diana Rivers, and Maggie Tagney nicely contrasts the homely housekeeper Mrs Fairfax with the jealous aunt, Mrs Reed.

So what of Jane and Mr Rochester? Worrall gives a performance of great verve, toughness, and variety without revealing much of a more vulnerable side. She excels as an energetic problem-solver rather than as revealer of her own emotions. Felix Hayes is surprisingly funny as Rochester….wryly conscious of his own contradictions and cross-grained predicament at the same time as he inhabits them. And he certainly has the right brash, bearish demeanour to meet the physical expectations of the role.

As impressive as the acting mostly is just as much credit belongs to the large creative team whose names occupy more space in the programme than the stage team. Cookson deserves high praise for devising a fine concept and applying it in rigorous detail right through the evening. Time and again Aideen Malone’s lighting-plot transforms a mundane moment into something special, and Katie Sykes’ costumes assert the period clearly while leaving flexibility for quick changes and adaptations.

I have said nothing so far of the music in this production, which in some respects is the most notable aspect of the work. Nestled in the centre of the set is a piano, a percussion set, and space for a violinist and accordion player. Benji Bower and a couple of other musicians provide a subtle blend of jazz, folk and cute minimalist underscoring that adds deftly to the atmosphere and pacing of the whole. More specifically they provide accompaniment to Melanie Marshall, dressed in a striking scarlet gown and wandering through the action. Her sumptuous voice takes us through several songs, familiar and unfamiliar, until she is gradually revealed to be Bertha Mason herself.

It is a genuine coup to provide Bertha with a voice of her own, when she is often simply rendered as the inarticulate mad woman in the attic. While this is not the character as envisaged in Jean Rhys’ famous prequel Wide Sargasso Sea, it is still a very convincing interpolation in the drama, and her delivery of ‘Mad about the Boy’ proved to be a genuine show-stopper.

What then deprives this fine production of the accolade of a final star? The answer is simply that the technical bravura sometimes gets in the way of full imaginative occupation of the character. The actors are so focused on offering a tour de forcethat some of the points of repose, for the creation in particular of romantic chemistry between Jane and Rochester, are skated over too quickly. We sense the animation and feistiness of the connection between the two of them, and the sexual attraction too; but even at the end, I missed the full-blown romance and tenderness that this novel really demands.

It seems to happen quite often at the National these days that when the Company is so focused on showing the full range of technical skills at their disposal they can fall short on those more traditional aspects of characterization that should not be taken for granted. We need to see not just Jane’s full force of independent character and Rochester’s grouchy whimsicality, but also two characters drawn to one another inevitably despite their best efforts to pull away. Sometimes actors think it is just too obvious to play out romantic scenes in a full-hearted and open-throated way. It is not enough to imply or to add irony or take it for granted – sentiment sometimes still needs to be played out in the grand manner at the climactic moments. When the original text was used in detail the brakes were naturally applied, and the author’s rhythms reasserted – this needed to happen more often.

This is a fully compelling night at the theatre. You do not feel the time dragging and can only be impressed at the way the cast finds new meanings in material that we all think we know backwards. This is a true ensemble production with scope for individuals to shine and the whole to resonate with something greater than their individual contributions too. It impressed hugely, made me laugh often, but in the second half rarely touched me as it should.

Jane Eyre runs at the National Theatre until January 10, 2016.

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