Writer: Charlotte Bronte (devised by the Company)
Director: Sally Cookson
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
The National Theatre has become quite adept at blowing the dust off the classics as recent productions of Hedda Gabler and Three Days in the Country gave contemporary relevance to Ibsen and Turgenev. But the National has also cannily welcomed shows from sympathetic regional venues, adopting Chichester’s Chekov season last year and in 2015 a remarkably agile interpretation of Jane Eyre from the Bristol Old Vic.
There are plenty of screen interpretations of Jane Eyre, including the near-definitive BBC version from 2006, but few attempts to stage it. So, after two years away from The National Theatre and two tours, Jane Eyre is back for a final month of performances – coincidentally this year, the Lyttelton stage has separately hosted both Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens, the stars of the 2006 TV adaptation, in other plays.
Sally Cookson’s production of Bronte’s novel strips the story to its bones, retaining only the key plot points and revelations, filling the gap with imaginative sequences, abstract expression and musical accompaniment that together create a gothic atmosphere with occasional thriller-like moments of drama. Even so, lovers of the original will be able to tick off all the important scenes – Jane’s childhood of misery, her formative friendship with Helen, the various incidents at Thornfield Hall where she encounters Mr Rochester, and the revelatory confessions and consequences that fill the final chapters of the story.
Devised by the Company, a real enthusiasm for the novel shines through every scene but coupled with a desire to shake off the period-drama tag, presenting a heroine who feels contemporary and relatable, a feat the production achieves with ease. There is a strong feminist backbone to this work which emphasises Jane’s quest for freedom and mutual respect, refusing to compromise her principles or her passions for an easy life.
With just seven cast members and three musicians, Cookson’s production creates Jane’s world, and on Michael Vale’s multi-level obstacle course set, the themes of the play and the seemingly insurmountable distance between the lovers is given physical shape. At times dresses drop in on hangars from the ceiling to suggest a school full of girls, or the crucial transitional moments in Jane’s life as she shrugs off one identity for another – schoolgirl, governess, bride, dispossessed woman.
Sound and music are also central to the storytelling, helping to create atmosphere, particularly with Melanie Marshall’s haunting voice that adds to Jane’s inner monologue, while drawing parallels with her own character Bertha. Dominic Bilkey’s sound design adds scale and mood at the right moments, complementing the minimal and fluid approach of the visual production.
As Jane herself, Nadia Clifford has the difficult task of playing her from the age of 10, comfortably demonstrating the growth into a more rational woman, while retaining some of that animalistic spirit from her youth. Clifford is a fiery and unyielding Jane which can make her difficult to sympathise with and slightly undercut the depth of her feelings for Rochester, but she conveys pain and loss extremely well, nurturing the continual public embarrassments that drive Jane’s desire for independence.
Tim Delap sidesteps that obviously brooding Rochester for an abrupt and even socially awkward interpretation instead. He’s blunt, unused to a more refined company and unwilling to change, but Delap suggests deep emotion both for Jane and his failed past that mean the production feels more vigorous when he’s on stage and evokes considerable pity.
The surrounding cast has as much to do as everybody else in the book, which they achieve with ease. Hannah Bristow distinctly plays Helen, Adele, Grace Poole and several others, while gender blind approaches allow Evelyn Miller to take on the roles of Blanche and St John. However, it is Paul Mundell who upstages everyone, even the leads, playing Pilot the dog who easily charms the audience and brings some of the only humour to the production.
The return of Jane Eyre to the National marks the end of two very successful years for a show that is strikingly new and yet faithful to its classic source material. At 3 hours and 15 minutes, it is a long night, and it only really begins to fly when Jane finally arrives at Thornfield, but there is much to enjoy in a production that is a salute to Jane Eyre, the first modern women.
Runs until 21 October 2017 | Image: Alastair Muir