Writer: Charlotte Brontë
Director: Sally Cookson
Music: Benji Bower
Reviewer: Beverley Haigh
2017 marks the 170th anniversary of the first publication of Charlotte Brontë’s most famous work. Fittingly, Bristol Old Vic in collaboration with The National Theatre has brought Sally Cookson’s devised adaptation to the stage in a ground-breaking reimagining for modern audiences.
As an enduring and landmark piece of writing from its era, Jane Eyre’s forward thinking protagonist becomes every bit as relevant today in this interpretation. Nadia Clifford makes sense of the character in her near perfect portrayal of the slightly plain, small character (much like Brontë herself).
Rather than merely evoking sympathy and pity for Jane, Clifford depicts her journey, from abandoned orphan to slightly impertinent, inquisitive child, to strong minded, independent woman seeking freedom and refusing to be dictated to. Always questioning and unafraid to challenge superiors or the system (she refuses to call Mrs Reed ‘Aunt’) Jane’s most influential meeting is with Helen Burns at Lowood School, who teaches her “there are no wicked people, just deeds”.
Minimalist setting provides the backdrop for this renowned story – more multi-level climbing frame, which the characters access via ladders and steps, morphing into the many backdrops of Jane’s troubled life: her sanctuary in the library at Gateshead Hall; the imposing Thornfield with its many windows; the attic which hides Rochester’s most guarded secret.
At times the set appears a hindrance, the cast desperate to fully utilise it, slowing the pace and flow of this slick-paced piece, despite its hefty content and nearly three-hour running time. A soundtrack of inclement weather is enough to depict the rainy moorlands of Bronte’s Yorkshire, yet whilst this neutral staging is used to good effect, the piece transcending time and place, it highlights inconsistencies.
The character of Bertha is masterfully played by Melanie Marshall, her ‘madness’ or differences highlighted by her contrasting portrayal in which she sings her fairly static performance, as opposed to the rest of the ensemble who are very physical in their depictions. Marshall provides pitch-perfect renditions of Mad About the Boy and Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy with her commanding voice, and whilst they fit harmoniously within the piece, the anachronism is only questionable as the characters are all wearing period costume.
Despite a minor quibble, this production is otherwise flawless. The energy of the more than capable cast is to be applauded as they accelerate through several characters each (including Paul Mundell’s comedic depiction of Pilot, Rochester’s faithful dog), Jane Eyre and Rochester (Tim Delap) onstage for almost the entire performance.
The supporting cast also provides a welcome enhancement, working as Jane’s inner monologue. Physical theatre is creatively used, bringing the piece to life in moments where Jane wanders through the corridors of Thornfield lit by single bulbs moved in place by the ensemble, denoting travelling scenes and skilfully creating a breeze using sheets and perfect timing as Jane opens a window.
This is a brave adaptation – a powerful and relevant reworking to celebrate Bronte’s 170th anniversary of her trailblazing heroine.
Runs until 22 April 2017 | Image: Contributed