Writer: Charlotte Bronte
Director: Sally Cookson
Composer: Benji Bower
Reviewer: Harriet Brace
Jane Eyre is Charlotte Bronte’s lasting legacy. The novel for which she is best remembered, the story has endured too many retellings to count – not all of them good.
But this latest reincarnation, a co-production between the National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic, is one that burns with passion afresh, reigniting Jane Eyre’s sense of defiance in the face of powerlessness and desperation that lesser productions crave and few achieve.
Charlotte Bronte’s enduring masterpiece tracks its unlikely heroine on her journey through troubled childhood into adulthood, negotiating Victorian societal values and the suffocatingly limited prospects afforded her as a poor orphan – and a mere female one at that.
Having gained an education, however grim the institution in which she attains it, Jane is able to become a governess and finally achieve the miniscule independence she craves. Yet her newfound freedom is soon bound inextricably to the tormented Mr Rochester and the mysterious ghosts of his past.
Sally Cookson’s iridescent production captures the simmering tension, passion, determination and sheer grit at the heart of Jane Eyre. Its simultaneous ebbs and flows of the ‘good’ and balanced behaviour expected of Jane and the fury she emanates in the face of seemingly endless injustice are immensely moving. Meanwhile Jane’s furious pursuit of the most basic independence is a gut-wrenching rallying cry for female emancipation that still feels shamefully relevant today.
Cookson’s direction has Jane zealously rebel – both verbally and physically – against the authoritarian figures that dominate her life and keep her within the confines she was born to. Yet in a cruel but clever dramatic demonstration of Jane’s enforced captivity, her strength of spirit and overwhelming fervour aren’t enough to change her station.
She moves situation, but she’s running on the spot. She heaves open heavy windows only to see them slammed shut, and she gazes at distant mountains with a heart-breaking resignation that she will never experience their cool, hard resolution for herself.
Nadia Clifford’s performance as Jane is captivating. Rent with raw emotion, stirring real tears from the audience and actors alike, she conveys Jane’s frustration with her lot in life with every exasperated breath. Her depth of feeling is clear in every syllable, rounded with intent, and her outbursts crackle with a fierce energy.
The challenging Mr Rochester is played by Tim Delap with a beguiling charm perfectly befitting the brusque yet primitively romantic figure; while Melanie Marshall manipulates mystery, intense loyalty and the desolate fog of mental illness to tremendous and eerie effect as Bertha Mason.
The whole company’s versatility is astounding, with a cast of just ten actors and musicians taking on multiple roles and a miniscule change of costume or immediate switch in dialect often the only indicator. Despite almost no off-stage time, every transition is faultless and each new character precise.
Hannah Bristow’s evolution from tragic Helen Burns to effervescent Adele, and finally to restrained and reasoned Diana Rivers is stand-out; while Evelyn Miller demonstrates equal skill in portraying down to earth maid Bessie, accomplished society bride-to-be Blanche and devoted missionary St John.
Benji Bower’s musical combination of soulful, spooky compositions with clashing chords that build to crashing crescendos creates an atmosphere that’s electric with anticipation throughout. Meanwhile the clever weaving together of sound and movement in desperate bangs and thumps echoes Jane’s dogged resolve to escape the confines of her sex and status.
Michael Vale’s stark, multi-level set of bare wood and metal bar echoes Jane’s austere existence. It’s also is masterfully crafted as a continuous obstacle for her to overcome – from seeking a refuge from childhood torment to negotiating the sinister third floor at Mr Rochester’s Thornfield Hall. Meanwhile Aideen Malone’s vivid lighting inspires passions equal to Jane’s as it snaps from severe grey to blistering red in an instant, mirroring the heroine’s internalised turmoil bubbling over into justified rage.
Cookson’s dynamic production consumes any preconceptions of the favourite period drama in the fierce lick of its sharp wit and visionary staging. The brave and unusual retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s epic tale is a triumph – smouldering with pioneering spirit and sizzling with raw emotion.
Runs until 10 June 2017 | Image: Manuel Harlan