Writer: Charlotte Bronte
Director: Sally Cookson
Reviewer: Ann Bawtree
This production of the well-loved, iconic Victorian novel, Jane Eyre, was first staged at the Bristol Old Vic before its transfer to the Lyttleton in September 2015 followed by a tour to theatres all over the United Kingdom and, at one point, to Hong Kong.
The set is eminently transportable, comprising different levels of open scaffolding, reached variously by means of stairs, a ramp and several ladders. Props are few and the whole is encircled by full height drapes which, by means of lighting can become either the oppressive “red room” in which the child Jane is incarcerated, the stark walls of the school or the blue and black of a violent thunderstorm. Tiny lanterns hang from the ceiling but are moved about, carried by the actors, sometimes as candles, lamps or are bunched together as a fire. A band of musicians play under one of the levels, providing sound effects and some emerging from time to time to play bit parts. Often these make demands on the imagination of the audience but it cannot be easy to portray a poor orphan girl when you are six feet tall with a fine, bushy beard.
Costuming is simple and varies little from that of Jane’s wealthy Reed relatives to that of the orphan’s garb. A suggestion of a full skirt and a tight bodice worn with clumpy boots are not conducive to the swift ascent of vertical ladders so often demanded by the action.
Music is an integral part of the evening, Melanie Marshall singing what is almost a narration in her warm mezzo, sometimes indiscreet songs, often unobtrusively vocalising the atmosphere. Even though this is necessarily a lengthy evening, a concentrated three hours with only one short interval, Nadia Clifford is excellent as Jane, keeping the audience by her side through all her sufferings and sadness and finally relieved, although everyone knows it comes out right in its dramatic end.
Most of the characters speak with Yorkshire accents, which is authentic but occasionally difficult for some southern ears. The exception is the Reverend Doctor Brocklebank in his immense stove-pipe hat and Paisley-esque delivery. This is where gender-blind casting is overtaken by species-blindness, for the cleric is played by Paul Mundell, who, between his startling early appearance and later in a small but key part as Mr Mason, plays Pilot, the dog, with such sympathy as to make us all want to go straight to Battersea to find one for ourselves.
A clever and accessible reimagining of a classic.
Runs until 17 June 2017 then tour continues | Image: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg