Jane Eyre is a genius piece of work.
That is a statement I am not prepared to argue with.
Not only was it written in the 1800s by a woman, but its protagonist is so powerful that she literally screams off the pages.
You could call Jane Eyre a love story, but ultimately that would be like saying that Hamlet is simply about a mad man who’s a little too fond of procrastination; there’s a lot more to it than that (really).
Jane Eyre is a Gothic tale about a woman growing up in a world full of cruelty and restraint. She is forced to repress her passions and prevented from speaking her mind. What you learn to love about Jane is her resilient nature; she refuses to conform and bravely seeks out her own happiness in life; something particularly unusual for women at the time.
Ultimately, that is what I enjoyed the most about the National Theatre’s production of Jane Eyre; it wasn’t a love story, it was an autobiographical exploration of Jane’s struggles and achievements.
Director, Sally Cookson evidently had a clear vision for Jane Eyre. She wanted to emphasise the timeless themes of the play:
“I didn’t want authentic set and period costume to suffocate it, killing the essence and magic of the story.”
The set, designed by Michael Vale, definitely reflected her intentions; it was refreshing to see. I would probably describe it as an elaborate IKEA playground. It enhanced the sense of freedom of Jane’s mind, as cast members were able to run, climb and swing on the set at ease. Jane’s entrapment was simply portrayed by the cast holding up square frames to create windows, which Jane broke through easily, and the sounds of fresh breeze and bird song circled around the theatre space.
The physicality of the whole production was pretty spot-on. I especially liked the moments where Jane travelled from one place to the next and the live band played a catchy beat while Jane and the other cast members jogged on the spot. It enhanced the sense of strength behind Jane, while also adding a bit of humour as they stopped for toilet breaks on the way and complained about the British weather.
Speaking of the band – the music was ingeniously composed and directed by Benji Bower. It had a folky, contemporary feel, which created a sense of timelessness. A particular favourite was a twist on the popular classic, ‘Crazy’ by Gnarls Barkley, sung by Melanie Marshall who played Bertha Mason. Her voice was like smooth caramel to the ears, with a little bit of bite – like a Crunchie bar, you might say. Basically, it was very good.
I haven’t even begun to talk about Jane herself, performed by Madeleine Worrall. She played Jane as an energetic ten-year-old, all the way up to her adult life as a governess. Not once did I question her performance; as a young girl she appeared very natural as her body language became larger and looser, and her voice more high-pitched and whiney. As she matured, she developed into a more contained being, quietly confident in herself and her abilities. She played Jane so effortlessly, that it didn’t take long to become attached to her and her story.
However, I must say that I wasn’t so keen on Jane’s love interest, Mr Rochester, played by Felix Hayes. I’ve never found Rochester an easy character to decipher, but I found this portrayal especially problematic. His outbursts were so over-dramatic that they made the audience titter; which I’m assuming wasn’t the intention. I imagined that he was channelling Dumbledore from The Goblet of Fire as he stormed down the stairs, shaking Harry Potter and bellowing: “HARRY! DID YOU PUT YOUR NAME IN THE GOBLET OF FIRE?”. And, as most of us are aware, this angry description of Dumbledore was not written as such in the book. The same could be said for Rochester; yes, he’s passionate, yes, he’s prone to angry outbursts, but don’t overdo it to the extent that the audience can’t take him or the relationship between Rochester and Jane seriously.
Nonetheless, (and what I am about to say may add salt to poor Rochester’s wound) Craig Edwards who played Pilot, Rochester’s dog was brilliant, and stole a lot of the laughs in the show. All he required was a leather strap in his hand and some very clever physicality; he would roll onto his back, panting and beating the strap against the floor, cleverly becoming his tail. This simple, yet effective idea brought a great deal of amusement.
The cast as a whole worked exceptionally well together; they created the music and aided transitions to help move the narrative forward, as well as multi-roling various minor characters. Simone Saunders who multi-roled a few characters, including the servant, Bessie, really stood out for me; she had a great deal of energy and switched roles effortlessly.
Considering Jane Eyre is one of my favourite novels, I thought I would be more critical about this performance. My only directorial query would be with the bigger, scarier ‘gothic’ moments of the play, when Bertha strikes. These moments were built up to well; you could really feel the tension, however, when it actually happened it was a bit…underwhelming. It was like a balloon deflating instead of popping.
Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this contemporary interpretation. I believe that director, Sally Cookson achieved her goal to “surprise and maybe challenge people’s expectations.” We weren’t given a typical period drama on stage, but something more experimental and full of variety.
Check out my friend Niamh Flynn’s review of this show too! You can find it here.
Don’t forget to have a look at some of the other shows I’ll be going to this year, you can find my list here.
Comment, share, go watch theatre and tell me about it!