REVIEW: Jane Eyre @Theatre Royal

Jane Eyre
Bristol Old Vic in association with the National Theatre.
Based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë

Following a critically acclaimed season at the National Theatre, Jane Eyre is touring the UK and is in Brighton until Saturday. This innovative re-imagining of Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece is collaboration between the National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic and is directed by Sally Cookson.

The classic story of the trailblazing Jane is as inspiring as ever. This bold and dynamic production uncovers one woman’s fight for freedom and fulfilment on her own terms. Jane Eyre’s spirited heroine faces life’s obstacles head-on, surviving poverty, injustice and the discovery of bitter betrayal before taking the ultimate decision to follow her heart.

Nadia Clifford’s Eyre is superb, an active, fierce reimagining from the very first moment and her slight physical frame accentuates her struggle to be taken seriously, on her own terms, in an unjust world set against her sex and needs.  With her chorus of internal dialogues we ranged through Jane’s brutal and brutish experience and see how they fail to crush her but compress her before her final flowering at the end of hope. Tim Delap’s raging, harsh, broody Rochester is an example of a modern interpretation of all the privilege of empire and money being projected as emotional turmoil,  addiction, bad actions over bad people ( as Brontë herself claims) and not the pitiless core and keen wickedness of the man, it serves the action well and his slow softening to Jane is acted with conviction, he is accompanied by the most superb representation of a dog I’ve seen on stage in years from Paul Mundell who delighted the crowd with his convincing and fun canine action.

Cookson’s direction is tight and efficient and these are some seriously well-drilled actors, she can’t have spared the whip. Just delightful, all of them,  all thought the night, from their own stand out performances (honestly everyone on the cast shone this evening, a flawless crew) to the choreography and ethereal slow-mo actions scenes Cookson has brought out the very best of individual actors and ensemble performances.

The onstage musicians who are also part of the cast provide a constant musical backdrop to the action, sometimes as soft harmonies, other times evoking stage-coach journeys with passion and humour, shifting from school chant to chapel hymn to accompanying beautiful set pieces from singer (and Bertha) Melanie Marshall whose side-ways narrative gives her a dignity and sadness that’s often missing in productions of Eyre. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a delicate, careful and essentially sad representation of Bertha and the whole play felt much better balanced because of it.  Her renditions of ‘Mad about the boy’ and ‘Crazy’ were both perfect reinterpretations, which suited the narrative perfectly and added another layer devoid of Jane’s perspective. Marshall’s voice soaring with purity, deep and soft with desire and commanding with her own narrative power stalking the action was astonishing and her lurking, sensual, constantly moving presence gave Bertha real power with no ‘mad women in the attic’ cliché. Marshall gives a tender and convincing performance and her voice is utterly beguiling. I was bewitched by this Bertha, and she gave a believable foundation to Rochester’s original adoration of her and his long devoted care.

Katie Sykes’s costumes are great, evoking class, status and narrative without too much period flim-flam and her pared down essences give a real flavour of the muted colours and rough fabrics that would have been the everyday of most folk rather than the luxurious fabrics of the wealthy socialites. Bertha’s deep scarlet dress is a shocking highlight and contrast both in sensuality and style and gives Melanie Marshall a seriously physical stage presence, brooding, other-than and disconcerting whilst being impossible to ignore and melancholy, strange and whispering of faded glamour.

The set is all scrubbed oak boards and scaffolding with windows to drop down, up and out to suggest various of the spaces of the narrative, school, house, classroom, the Hall, the lane etc, it’s evocative without being in the slightest bit convincing but the superb acting more than makes up for the lack of imagination in the set and if you like folk running around (and around) and climbing up and down ladders and across floorboard you’re in for a treat, it felt like the Thornfield workout.  The lighting is as suggestive and the occasional theatrical effect; wind on the veil, a lightning storm and real flames (always a vicarious thrill in a flammable tinderbox like the Theatre Royal) work well, but again the top-notch acting transports us where the set just prods.

The plot roars, of unjust life and hope, of love and wonder, of duty and cruelly, of lost folk and lack of opportunities and of the voices of clear minds that yearn and ache for recognition and love and it’s true to Bronte in that.  I enjoyed it immensely, my companion and the rest of the theatre were thrilled and transfixed by it, it’s been a long time since I’ve heard a theatre that quiet for so long and there was a tumultuous applause for the well deserved and physically exhausted actors at the end.

It’s a long play, but the constant chopping of space, action, time and inner/outer worlds keeps the actions and narrative moving along, it’s a carnal treat. There were some lovely scene changes where Jane’s just whirls her skirts, they fill out, she turns, and we find ourselves moved on.

Simple, evocative, engaging and seriously well acted this is thoroughly modern Eyre, and as relevant today as when it was written, it’s still an unjust world for many people, so grab any young person and take them to this production and treat your friends if you can get a ticket… We need theatre like this, to remind us how important it is to live on our own terms, as Jane says..

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being, with an independent will..”

Ravishing, book now!

Runs until Saturday, July 29 at
Theatre Royal, Brighton

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