Writer: Sally Cookson from the novel by Charlotte Brontë
Director: Sally Cookson
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Director Sally Cookson says that it is a daunting task to take one of the iconic English novels, a novel that is credited with changing the face of the novel by focusing on the thoughts, feelings and development of the eponymous heroine as she makes her way through life, and adapt it for the stage. She adds that the aim of this production was always “to explore the themes and get to the heart of the story” – an aim that is true.
Cookson and the original company have together devised a piece that puts the focus firmly on Jane, an intelligent girl (and later woman), one who has a strong moral compass that never wanders regardless of the privations she suffers but one who can, nevertheless, feel strong passion for the man to whom she gives her heart.
As one enters the theatre, one is struck by the monochromatic set, rough-hewn and on several levels linked by ramps, ladders and steps and surrounded by white drapes. This is supplemented at times by sticks of furniture, strong lighting and window frames carried on or flown in. The cast is forever on the (carefully choreographed) move making the whole a feast for the eyes despite, or maybe thanks to, the basic nature of much of the set.
Costumes, too, are largely monochromatic, leading one, for example, to ask the significance of the occasional appearances of a stunningly red-clad lady (Melanie Marshall) whose powerful and heartfelt bluesy singing complements the action – all is, of course, revealed in time. Costume and stylised movement are used effectively to punctuate Jane’s journey from orphan at Gateshead Hall where she is barely tolerated and mistreated by her aunt and cousins to her time as governess at Thornfield Hall where her love for her “peculiar” employer, Mr Rochester begins to grow only for their marriage plans to be confounded by a dark secret leading her to move on, alone again.
The use of a chorus of other actors at times of stress for Jane is particularly effective as its members provide her inner dialogue, their movements apparently chaotic as Jane’s thoughts cast about in her attempt to make some sense of the world.
On stage pretty much the whole time, Nadia Clifford gives us the feisty Jane. Clifford brings each stage of Jane’s life vividly to life, a technicolor performance against a monochrome background. We share her bewilderment at some of the slings and arrows cast at her by outrageous fortune as well as enjoying her triumphs along the way. Clifford ensures that, while headstrong, Jane never becomes unsympathetic. A powerful performance indeed.
Lynda Rooke takes on two quite contrasting characters. Firstly, she is Jane’s aunt, Mrs Reed who is tasked by her dying husband to care for the orphan as her own but who signally fails to do so. Malevolent towards Jane, she is almost entirely unsympathetic, her only redeeming features being her feelings towards her family and some sense of duty towards Jane. Later Rooke will play the altogether more pleasant Mrs Fairfax, housekeeper at Thornfield Hall, whose wise words and counsel help Jane settle and find her feet as governess. Evelyn Miller similarly takes contrasting rôles with aplomb. Initially seen as Bessie, the maid at Gateshead Hall who is Jane’s only friend there, she also plays the rather unpleasant gold-digging Blanche Ingram, Jane’s rival for Rochester’s hand. Her physicality shows us everything we need to know about the contrast between these two characters.
Paul Mundell plays several male parts, including Mr Brocklehurst, the proprietor of Lowood. But he really lights up the stage as Pilot, the enthusiastic dog of Rochester with a tremendous physical performance.
And what of Rochester, the gruff man troubled by his own past? A well-rounded performance by Tim Delap brings him to life making us sympathetic for him even as we develop our knowledge of the impact poor decisions as a younger man have had on him. We see his troubled nature clearly as well as his softening as he gets to know and admire Jane.
At three hours including interval, this is certainly not a sprint but one never feels that it is dragging, rather one is sucked into the action, waiting with baited breath for the next revelation and plot twist as Jane’s life unfolds. The need to be selective does mean that some sub-plots and characters are undercooked or omitted leaving a few loose ends; even so, this is a theatrical coup leaving one’s emotions in shreds and fully deserving the rapturous reception it receives.
Runs until 16 September 2017 and on tour | Image: Manuel Harlan