Writer: Sally Cookson from the novel by Charlotte Bronte
Director: Sally Cookson
Reviewer: Maggie Constable
Milton Keynes Theatre welcomes Jane Eyre this week on the 170th anniversary of the first publication of Charlotte Brontë’s celebrated novel. Bristol Old Vic, working with The National Theatre, has brought Sally Cookson’s clever reinterpretation of the timeless love story to the stage. This ground-breaking piece concentrates much more on Jane Eyre’s full life story than on her loves in a completely new perspective on Jane Eyre.
The passionate tale, of which there have been many film/TV versions, is well known but this adaptation truly shows us the independent and strong-minded woman whose early years as a lost and maltreated orphan give her the fighting spirit to deal with poverty, betrayal and sheer injustice. In the end, she will follow her heart with total determination. A novel rightly praised for being ahead of its time. This play is much the same…
On entering the auditorium, one is faced with a large metal and wood structure slanted onto the stage at varying levels and surrounded by flowing white drapes. We start with the birth of Jane where the actor (Nadia Clifford), in a white baby smock, is making the crying noises as a swaddled baby held by the family. At once the audience is given an inkling as to how this piece is going to operate and from that moment is drawn in.
Nadia Clifford brings us the eponymous heroine. The character has been played in films by acclaimed actors Elizabeth Taylor and Charlotte Gainsbourg so a hard task to undertake but Clifford, who is on stage for the duration (3 hours), is the essence of Jane Eyre in all her plainness, whether of speech, look or ideas. She is utterly believable as the unloved, unwanted and somewhat quirky youngster who has had to develop a protective shell to get on in the world. She truly brings us the spirited young woman whose passion and empathy are boundless. Her chemistry with Mr Rochester, performed here by Tim Delap, is totally convincing as is the latter’s portrayal of the gruff, lost and wayward man who nonetheless has great soul. Delap does Rochester to a tee without overdoing the character, as has often been the case in TV versions. He looks and behaves like an ordinary human being with all his faults, anger and vulnerability. His is a real stage presence and he uses his physicality well.
Hannah Bristow, in the roles of Helen, Adele, Diane Rivers, Abbot and Grace Poole, shows just how versatile she can be in acting and in accent. We are aware it is the same actor from her physical appearance but she still manages to convey the various characters.
Lynda Rooke, as both the wicked Mrs Reed and the lovable Mrs Fairfax, does a superb job and her portrayals are aptly understated. She, too, is able to convince us that these are different people. Paul Mundell brings us Mr Bocklehurst, Mason and Pilot. No spoilers here but his Pilot is outstanding and oft funny. His performance is reminiscent of some in the wonderful War Horse, which also began life at the National.
Lighting, by Aideen Malone, acts almost as another character – he provides some of the best use of lighting seen at Milton Keynes Theatre in recent years. It works wonderfully on the white drops and in sync with the action, the mood and the music. The effects created are beautiful and very powerful. Set design by Michael Vale is very, very simple but so effective, more especially in the way it is used by the director to convey motion and change. This is aided by the movement (directed by Dan Canham) which almost appears as choreography in contemporary dance. A clever use of the space.
Costumes have been designed by Katie Sykes and a quiet touch is the use of costume to indicate a change in age for Jane.
The musicians act as well as sing and play instruments, and are on stage at the back for the entire play. They are clearly visible and definitely part of the whole. Benji Bower’s music is more like a film score and, in so being, creates a haunting and very emotional feel to the whole story.
Runs until 15 July 2017 | Image: Manuel Harlan