Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, devised by the company – National Theatre: Lyttleton
Only the second week, but the National Theatre’s Thursday night broadcasts are already a fixed point in our adrift, theatre-free lives. I’ve often wondered how the experience of living a town with only one theatre, and seeing everything they put on, would compare to London, where there are easily ten shows you might see for every one you do. Now I know. It means that you watch productions like Jane Eyre, which did not grab me at all when it was on in real life. I’m not a fan of classic novels adapted for the stage, expectations shaped by the RSC’s leaden productions of Great Expectations and Midnight’s Children in the 2000s. But this Jane Eyre is very good, and nimbly avoids the pitfalls of novel theatre.
Guided by director Sally Cookson, the show was improvised by the company. It treads lightly, despite coming in at 3 hours, and there is never the sense that this is a secondary substitute for the real thing, or that everything from the book has to be crammed in regardless. Michael Vale designed a set of ladders and platforms, which serve to play out journeys of the literal and physical variety. Costume changes – dressed lifted off and on by the crowding cast, carry great symbolic weight. The machinery of the show is on stage for us to see, including a band installed centre stage. Music plays an important role, between scenes as shorthand for what is left unsaid and as a vehicle for the madwoman in the attic, Bertha. Silent in the book, she sings on stage with Melanie Marshall, wearing a red dress, using her beautiful voice to express the silenced.
An energetic cast is led by Hannah Bristow as Jane, always at the centre of her own story, bringing her life and destiny under control with brave, wise decisions at the key moments. Tim Delap’s Mr Rochester, by contrast, is a man trapped in his own melodrama who can only be at peace when he is no longer able to dominate. The scenes that linger from childhood readings – the terrifying, haunted ‘red room’, the death of Helen Burns at school, the fire in Mr Rochester’s bedroom, Jane’s marriage offer from a missionary – are all carefully staged, with Cookson expertly managing the devised energy that sparkles throughout. Jane Eyre is a revolutionary book in many ways, challenging the repression of girls and women at every stage of their lives, and sending out a clarion call for the primacy of imagination and romance. The National Theatre’s production does an exceptional job of staging a book that turns out, surprisingly, to be fine performance material.