Choreography: Cathy Marston
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre is a game-changing work of literature, introducing character-based internalisation of the action previously largely the domain of poetry, and creating faction that explored social realism and critique, sexuality, religion and proto-feminism. It was a novel that redefined the possibilities of fiction in a way that makes it still relevant today – which is why television, film and theatre-makers revisit the story time and again. Here, Northern Ballet have enlisted Cathy Marston, a choreographer with a literary background and a history of transforming from page to dance stage, to create a new ballet version.
Condensing a 400-page novel full of internalised thoughts and dramatic action into a 90-minute ballet is no mean task and one not entirely successfully realised. Marston does an effective job of getting through the key elements of the narrative – orphaned Jane, unloved by her own relatives sent away to school where she is cruelly treated, but grows up to be a teacher who sets out into the world as a governess to a house owned by a brooding and complex man with a ward and a dark mysterious secret literally living locked away and in seclusion; a man with whom she falls in love but cannot marry until he, his secret and his house are destroyed.
Jane Eyre is an attractive and mostly-entertaining fly through the story. Patrick Kinmonth’s versatile set design of painted cloths that evoke dark and wild spaces, vast skies, trees, moorland, oppressive rooms, is free from clutter, and gives it an impressionistic, modern look with only a vague sense of place. The occasional piece of furniture and the early-Victorian costumes introduce details of period and character with significant points of colour to dramatise the action – the beetle-black of Jane’s unloving aunt, Mrs Reed, and the vivid scarlet of Mrs Rochester’s tattered finery.
But the breakneck pace doesn’t allow for much sense of Jane’s character or her emotional journey. She rotates swiftly through sad, fearful, happy and occasionally defiant without ever establishing a strong sense of identity or connection with the audience. There is little opportunity for the kind of solo that might illustrate or share an interior dialogue. Mr Rochester is similarly under-developed. The most vividly-drawn characters are the simplest, or the ones met briefly or occasionally: cousins, servants, especially Rochester’s housekeeper Mrs Fairfax (Dominique Larose) and Grace Poole (Minju Kang), Rochester’s wife’s long-suffering servant’/jailer. Jane’s pupil Adele (Antoinette Brooks-Daw) also pops.
There are some effective scenes – the prologue, which is reprised at the point the story catches up with the narrative framing is pleasing, the scenes at Lowood Institution are evocative, although the tragedy of Jane’s friend’s death from TB is undermined by the seemingly-short duration of their meeting and the fact that shortly after expiring Miki Akuta gets up and walks off. But both fires – for example – are rather underwhelming. Marston’s judicious use of pointe work and the character-based movement of minor characters are neatly done.
Philip Feeney’s score, which compiles his own original material with contemporary music by Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn and Schubert is melodic and easy on the ear and faithful to the period but somehow only achieves accompaniment rather than meaningfully adding to the drama or the psychological portrait of Jane or Rochester.
In summary, Jane Eyre is a somewhat-superficial romp through the novel, attractively designed and neatly performed by a popular and competent company, but somehow it lacks intellect or emotional depth, or the kind of innovation and technical flare that characterises the leading edge of modern theatre or dance – such as the National Theatre’s recent production of Jane Eyre. Somehow this Jane Eyre is safe, nostalgic, comforting and romantic when it could and should be dark, questioning, brutal and passionate.
Runs until 9 June 2018 | Image: Emma Kauldhar