Writer: Charlotte Brontë
Adaptors: Sally Cookson and company
Director: Sally Cookson
In picturing a staging of Jane Eyre you might imagine only starchy conversations and long, listless gazing out at the bland wintery palette of English countryside, and understandably so. Charlotte Brontë’s magnum opus is often filed away under one of those novels you have to read so you can say you’ve read it, but its reputation is hardly that of searing relevance or heart-pumping excitement. Director Sally Cookson, however, seems quite determined that this should not be so.
Jane (Madeleine Worrall), an orphan from birth, is brought to live with an embittered relative, Mrs Reed (Maggie Tagney) who despises her very presence. At her earliest convenience, she sends her off to an equally oppressive boarding ‘institution’ where she learns that not only is she alone in this world, but so are a bunch of other people, and the world doesn’t seem to care a jot. As she grows in to adulthood, she seeks to find at least fulfilment if not adventure, which leads her to the household of the literarily notorious Mr Rochester (Felix Hayes) and the excitement she has been craving.
Worrall satisfies as both a spirited little girl and a hesitant young woman, her dynamism hidden though not extinguished. Her performance is surprisingly physical and she seems unafraid to use her whole body. Hayes is the perfect Rochester, quite unlikeable, though he is saved by perhaps his only redeeming quality: his love of Jane
Cookson does well not to dwell too singly on the romance of Mr Rochester and Miss Eyre, but rather to include it as one of many episodes. It’s unfortunate that their relationship is often seen to eclipse the rest of the plot because, as this production shows, there is so much more to Jane. That being said, Jane hearing Mr Rochester’s disembodied voice mysteriously calling out to her still seems like a bizarre and clunky narrative device as it does in the novel, a desperate insistence on love being this pivotal force when the story appears to want to go in another direction, but unfortunately it’s unavoidable in a retelling of the book. (Be grateful this rant was only a few lines, this reviewer has much to say on the subject.)
This certainly isn’t the only, or the most pressing issue with the plot: first and foremost is Rochester’s imprisoned first wife who is used merely as an accessory to Jane’s story. Cookson nods to this issue, Melanie Michael’s beautiful, haunting vocals representing the otherwise voiceless ‘mad’ woman in the attic. Maybe it isn’t enough, but it’s hard to imagine a production of this text that could do much better.
Debunking any conceptions of a frilly drawing room drama, whilst costumes remain period-specific (Katie Sykes), the entire play takes place on a very serious-looking jungle gym, as designed by Michael Vale, with a bridge, multiple ladders, and a ramp, the band (Benji Bower) nestled in the centre of it all. Very fitting indeed, as the live music is central to this production’s urgent tempo.
In devising this play, Cookson has said it was a collaborative effort, formed through workshops rather than an already finished script, and this is clear from the start. Though the novel’s narrative often feels like one of isolation, a singular person battling on, much of this production is made up of chorus work. Even in moments of solitude, Jane is accompanied by an inner monologue ensemble, giving breadth and weight to her thoughts and feelings.
Cookson has also somehow found levity, even humour in this usually very serious story. Pilot the dog, as played by Craig Edwards, is a particular highlight, the more so because Edwards also plays the very stern and cruel Mr Brocklehurst, headmaster of Jane’s school, and it feels strangely triumphant to see him sprawled on the floor, wagging his tail after he has been so mean to our Jane.
Most of the cast is granted this impressive range of characters: Laura Elphinstone who plays Jane’s poorly school friend is later reborn as the cold, even-tempered St. John; Simone Saunders, playing kindly servant Bessie reappears as the beautiful, pompous Blanche Ingram. It all feels very playful, surreal even, and though perhaps in other hands it might have gone very differently, this cast is more than up to the task, giving depth and nuance to every role.
It feels so unlikely that a production of Jane Eyre should be punchy and breathless, packed full of action and excitement. And yet, Cookson delivers this and more, reinventing plain Jane as a modern-day heroine.
Runs here until 6 April 2020