Author: Charlotte Brontë
Music: Benji Bower
Director: Sally Cookson
Reviewer: Laura Hesketh
After an incredible run at London’s National Theatre, Sally Cookson’s epic reimagining of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre returns to Bristol Old Vic as a single thrilling piece of drama.
Unlike many screen adaptations that have portrayed Brontë’s novel as a romance, Cookson and the ensemble’s interpretation of the story does not focus solely on Jane’s love for Rochester; instead, the play is a platform for a strong female voice to challenge the constraints of class and gender.
Cookson’s adaptation is as much about Jane’s psychological journey as it is her relationship with the brooding Rochester. The spirited heroine knows the boundaries that restrict her – both in terms of class and gender – are unjust and cruel.This production rejects any hint that this is a story about a “poor, obscure, plain, and little” literary character; this is a story of an individual with a brilliant mind who strives for personal freedom.
Even Bertha – often thought of as the silenced madwoman in the attic – is granted a voice; Melanie Marshall’s sung performance transforms Rochester’s imprisoned wife into a haunting songstress storyteller. Her renditions of Mad about the Boy and Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy are mesmerising.
At a glance, Michael Vale’s set is somewhat peculiar. But the wooden ramps, steps and ladders surrounded by white drapes are ingenious and the walkways allow the actors to create a whirlwind of movement. The lack of grand backdrops and rigid scenery ensures audiences’ imagination is evoked instead of restricted, open to interpretation instead of controlled.Benji Bower’s combination of folk, pop and jazz is impressive and original, interweaving familiar and unfamiliar songs that tell more about the characters than they would like to reveal.
From a destitute orphan to a fervent adult who is aflame with fury against the cruel hand the world has dealt her, Madeleine Worrall gives an outstanding performance as Jane; her heroine is by no means a little waif, but a strong-minded woman. Her witty and feisty exchanges with the master of Thornfield prove she is very much his equal. Felix Hayes captures Rochester’s aloof and tormented nature, and yet is surprisingly funny as he delivers his contradictions with a wry smirk.
The talented ensemble portray a plethora of characters as the play abandons the typical restrictions – such as age, race, gender and even species– that usually dictates the parts each individual can play, and the actors embrace the challenge with aplomb. Laura Elphinestone should be commended for her ability to inhabit three extremely varied roles, while Craig Edwards almost steals the show as he bounces around as Rochester’s excitable dog.
A must-see and fitting production to start Bristol Old Vic’s 250th birthday celebration, Jane Eyre is a compelling piece of theatre that intelligently finds new meanings to Brontë’s vivid descriptions. The adaptation’s focus on the fight for personal freedom will surely resonate with many.
Runs until: 6 February 2016 | Image: Manuel Harlan