Writer: Charlotte Bronte
Adaptor & Director: Sally Cookson
Sound Designer: Dominic Bilkey
Composer: Benji Bower
Reviewer: S.E. Webster
From Michael Fassbender to Judi Dench, film star royalty have repeatedly tackled Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece, while countless school children throughout the country have been made to study it. Among the countless crinoline TV adaptations filled with swooning Janes and rakish Rochesters, the National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic collaboration is a welcome breath of fresh air, re-examining this old classic from a new angle.
Featuring a strong company of actors, each individual is well cast in their respective roles, delivering solid, confident performances. Nadia Clifford is a feisty, bolshy Jane unlike any you will have ever seen on the silver screen. Her Jane is no wilting wallflower, but instead a full-blooded, fiery, determined young woman, and Clifford’s passionate delivery of Jane’s lines (some of the longer speeches are lifted vertabim from the book) is stirring and heartfelt. Her Jane is also stoutly northern, although her accent wanders west of the Pennines if truth be told.
However. while it’s impressive that the company are able to morph into different parts, scenes such as the human stage coach lack some finesse and polish (perhaps due to a total lack of props). Moreover, while the part of Pilot is a tricky problem for a production team to solve, and though Paul Mundell is very convincing, it brings a little too much comedy to certain scenes, for example, the emotional finale.
The lighting design is simple but effective, enabling bright colour, such as the red room, to reflect boldly off the white voile that lines the three stage walls. However, more dimming of the lights between scenes would improve the fluidity of the drama – some of the staged deaths are rushed and lack dramatic pause; the actors standing up and walking off stage all of a sudden with the lights still up while other actors continue to look on.
The set is minimalist (typical of a National Theatre production) and generally functions well in enhancing the underlying themes of Jane Eyre. There are some clever sequences involving windows that serve as nice theatrical metaphors for Jane’s fluctuating imprisonment and liberation, and the positioning of different characters on the varying ladders and different levels of the stage set is heavy with symbolism but effective. Although it seems a lost opportunity that Bertha Mason appears more times at the lowest point on stage, often under Jane’s level, as opposed to above her (up in the attic).
The live musicians are fantastic and the singing, in particular the soulful, versatile voice of Melanie Marshall is mesmerising. However, overall musically, this production is saturated with too many different genres to the point where it doesn’t know what it’s trying to be and lacks cohesion. Though it’s impressive that hits like Mad About the Boy and Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy have infiltrated the realm of the Brontës, it does seem rather forced. There are also musical episodes that seem to borrow from bands like The Lumineers, jazz and blues and there are even reminiscences of Colin Matthew’s World War One inspired No Man’s Land. While, some of these influences seem appropriate, the overall musical impression is disjointed.
Overall, however, this is a confident and compelling production and re-interpretation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel. Moreover, it is a memorable and genuinely different version than that which audiences will have seen on TV and in cinemas.
Runs until 20 May 2017 | Image: Contributed