Review: Jane Eyre

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.

Jane Eyre, Bristol Old Vic Review
Madeleine Worrall as Jane Eyre.Sourced from The Guardian.

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.

Jane Eyre Bristol Old Vic Review
Travel scene. Sourced from Bristol Old Vic Website

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.

Madeleine Worrall and Felix Hayes. Sourced from officiallondontheatre.co.uk

 

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!

Review: A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing

Walking into the Tobacco Factory Theatre space, we see a dimly lit stage with a gravel-like flooring.

This barren, empty space sets the scene perfectly; as what we are about to see is something so tragic and heart-wrenching that you feel completely hollow when you leave.

A Girl Is a Half Formed Thing is a 90 minute monologue, adapted from the novel by Eimear McBride which

mid-aoife-duffin-3.-credit-mihaela-bodlovic-1453980371
Aoife Duffin. Sourced from Bristol 24/7 website.

peers into the life of a poor Irish Catholic family. Already, you can probably gather that the story is far from jolly. With Irish stories such as The Magdalene Sisters which explores the corruptive Catholic Church and the complete disrespect for women as they are seen as sexual objects, (I unfortunately watched that film alone and was thus left in an emotional bottom-less pit of moroseness), you can guess what sort of direction this play will take.

Nonetheless, this monologue was flawlessly performed by Aoife Duffin, who captured our attention from the very beginning with her melodic Irish accent. She is plainly dressed; wearing only a baggy top and bottoms, which provides a neutral canvas for the various characters she performs.

Her physical ability to switch from one character to the next is incredible; you can practically see the scene unfold in front of you. We are moved seamlessly through this hard-hitting story, lulled by the beautifully poetic script written by Annie Ryan.

We never discover the girl’s name; which indicates the lack of feminine identity within this bubble of society; she truly is a half-formed thing. With a cold-hearted, god-fearing mother and a younger brother with cancer, the girl is shoved into the background, brought up in a household full of shame and hate.

By the age of 13, she is sexually abused by her uncle, which begins her sexual journey as a bleak and loveless downward spiral. She sees sex as a form of currency and self-harm; she is so accustomed to being treated as a sexual object, that she no longer sees herself as being anything else. When she discusses her various encounters with men, she speaks with a slow drawl, verbally communicating the way she is passed carelessly from man to man. Sex is an empty feeling for her; it means nothing.

The few sound effects throughout were simple, yet interesting. One sound that sticks in my mind in particular was something that sounded like rolling marbles, which made its way from one side of the theatre to the other, as if they were rolling around us. I believe this happened when her brother died, which to me indicates towards the saying ‘losing your marbles’; hinting towards the girl’s final tipping point.

Duffin’s performance is passionate and painful as she transforms into her little brother, fighting for his life, then her stern, hateful mother and then her weak, perverted uncle. You feel and see every emotion in every single character, and love and hate them all equally. This is what made this play so gritty; Duffin laid herself bare for a full 90 minutes, and all we could do was watch helplessly.

I must say that I got a little lost at the end. This is most likely because of the very challenging, emotional upheaval the play takes you through; by the end, you’re emotionally shattered.

Nonetheless, this was a one-woman play masterpiece. The spoken-word element to the script was not only engrossing, but emotionally charged, and Duffin was breath-taking. You could tell that she had put all of her energy into this piece.

This was a play that you wish you never had to see, but ultimately opens wounds and pushes boundaries.

Review: RSC Production of Wendy and Peter Pan

If I could sum up the RSC production of Wendy and Peter Pan in one word, it would be: Ingenious.

Playwright, Ella Hickson uproots the classic JM Barrie tale and forms it into something deeper and more relevant, yet still remains true to the context of the time.

One defining feature in Hickson’s version is that we begin with four Darling children instead of three. Tom is the fourth child who passes away at the beginning of the play, thus shattering the Darling household as they know it. Therefore, when Peter Pan arrives and mentions the ‘Lost Boys’ in Neverland, Wendy immediately jumps to the conclusion that Tom must be one of them; providing the story with a much stronger emotional pull than the promise of pirates and mermaids (although this is still what sways John and Michael!).

Another very strong feature to Hickson’s version is that arguably, this isn’t Peter’s story at all, it is Wendy’s. In JM Barrie’s novel, Wendy is predominantly shoved into the ‘motherly’

Wendy-_-Peter-Pan-production-photos_-2015_2015_Photo-by-Manuel-Harlan-_c_-RSC_179197
Mariah Gale as Wendy. Sourced: westendtheatre.com

role and thus into the restraints of patriarchy, as seen when she is put safely into her ‘Wendy house’ when she arrives in Neverland. However, Hickson turns her into a powerful force to be reckoned with as she scoffs at the childishness of Peter and the other boys and hatches a plan of her own to find Tom. This is mirrored by Mrs Darling’s story as she breaks out of the family home to fight for her independence amongst the Suffragette movement.

Mariah Gale plays Wendy with ease, as she not only reveals her childlike innocence, but her more opinionated, strong and practical side. Gale was one of my favourite performers as I felt that she brought a different side to Wendy; she made her a real, flawed human being rather than the prim and proper young girl Wendy is so often portrayed as.

I appreciated the way women were brought to the forefront of this narrative. I really liked the way Hickson joined the female characters together to save the Lost Boys on The Jolly Roger. With Tigerlily’s (Mimi NDiweni) strength and resilience, Tinkerbell’s sassiness and wit (Charlotte Mills) and Wendy’s passion and confidence, we have the perfect team and truly see the different aspects of their personalities. In this story we see the girls as heroes, which I think we need to see a lot more of in theatre.

Another character who stood out from the start was Adam Gillen as the Cabin Boy on Captain Hook’s ship. I recognised him from his previous roles in television series Benidorm and Fresh Meat which prove his worth as a talented comedy actor. With his brilliant one-liners and slap-stick approach, he seemed to be a firm favourite amongst both children and adults alike. Another actor who had the same comic effect was Douggie McMeekin who played the Lost Boy, Curly. His comic timing was on point and he delivered his lines effortlessly, making his character the most defined out of the Lost Boys.

Of course, we always like a baddie – Captain Hook played by Darrell D’Silva lived up to all our expectations with his domineering presence, snarky comments and a pinch of wit for good measure. He was followed throughout by the ever-present crocodile, played by Arthur Kyeyune who delivered the part exceptionally; gliding across the stage with a hungry look in his eyes (truly terrifying!).

Another interesting aspect was the purpose of the shadows; Peter has six of them. They

shadows
The Shadows carrying Peter Pan, played by Rhys Rusbatch. Sourced: Coventry Telegraph.

are used throughout to move the story along, attach and detach the actors’ harnesses and add a more physical-theatre feel to the production. I really liked the creative decision to include them in the play as they helped with both the practical and visual aspects.

The set was incredible – thanks to award-winning designer Colin Richmond. A lot of thought and effort had been put into both the design and construction. I was blown away when the Lost Boy’s underground den was revealed; the stage surface lifted, and underneath we see the Lost Boys playing and dancing in this very impressive wooden structure with scattered objects such as books, brooms, springs, a bath, a cooking pot, and a bed and chairs on varied levels. The boys hang off the structure and Tinkerbell lounges in her pink bed above. This set is the perfect encapsulation of childhood, as Richmond comments:

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The Lost Boy’s den. Sourced: sardinesmagazine.co.uk

“Their space represents the ideal child’s bedroom – it’s full of discarded things that are somehow important because they’ve been given a different emphasis, like playing restaurants with make-believe food when you’re a child.”

I could go on all day about this show, but I think I should leave it here as I don’t want to spoil it too much for you!

However, I will end by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed this imaginative revision of Peter and Wendy. It challenged the original story and successfully captured the feminist, comical and magical moments of the tale. I felt like I had been transported to the Neverland I had always wanted to experience. Very well done to the writer, cast and crew for such an innovative production of a classic story!

Please don’t hesitate to comment, share or chat! Tweet me @tesshenderson94

 

 

Strong Theatre Roles For Women: Where the Hell Are They?

In this blog I want to address an issue that has not only been in the press recently, but has been discussed amongst some of my friends: Why is it that there are so few strong female roles in theatre?

For an art form that has had so much involvement in societal change, it is surprising that it is still lagging behind in the race for gender equality. We’ve had our very belief systems shattered by the existentialist Samuel Beckett, and the brutal realities of life stare us in the face in Sarah Kane’s Blasted. However, something as simple as a woman playing a role that would normally be written for a man is almost unheard of.

In fact, it makes us feel uncomfortable.

Strong Female Roles Make Audiences Feel Uncomfortable.

This point was made in The Independent article in September. Vicky Featherstone, the Artistic Director at London’s Royal Court argued that audiences and critics are perhaps unknowingly prejudiced against female-led narratives. She stated:

We haven’t seen a female King Lear, we haven’t seen a female Willy Loman, we haven’t seen a female Hamlet. People haven’t written those plays yet. And when they do write them […] people don’t receive them very positively.”

She went on to say that female actors are judged more harshly because of this, especially if they are a flawed character. A lot of the time, women are pigeon-holed into smaller, whimsical and fun roles, as audiences are more accustomed to watching this. Terri Paddock, the founder of WhatsOnStage.com agreed that it is perhaps not the audiences or critics being prejudiced, it is more to do with them not being as familiar with strong, female-led roles in plays.

Paddock continued his point stating that frequently, plays starring female characters are generally centred around women’s issues, rather than universal ones.

Paddock used The Death of a Salesman as an example; it is a play with more male roles, however he argues that it is not about men’s issues. I would be inclined to disagree with that; yes, it is about the universal themes of ageing, social change and family, yet, it is also undeniably about the crisis of masculinity.

Strong Women in Real Life.

The issue of female identity has not only been discussed in the theatre world, but most recently, by Jennifer Lawrence in her essay: Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co-Stars?. She strikes up the argument that unlike men, women are expected to be pleasant and avoid being authoritative, as it can come across as bossy and self-centred. She says:

All I hear and see all day are men speaking their opinions and I give mine in the exact same manner and you would have thought I had said something offensive.”

This perhaps explains why flawed female characters are criticised in theatre; are strong women feared within both narratives and reality?

What is being done now to change this?

Recently, an article in The Stage asked: Does your play pass the Bechdel test? Beth Watson, an actor behind the Bechdel Theatre is keen to put on plays that pass these requirements:

  • There are at least two female characters on stage.

  • They talk to each other.

  • They talk about something other than men.

Bend it Like Beckham Stage Show. From 'The Stage' Website.
Bend it Like Beckham Stage Show. From ‘The Stage’ Website.

The test originated in 1985 as a comic strip by American Artist and Writer, Alison Bechdel. Watson adopted this test and decided to apply it to stage plays in order to tackle the female stereotypes within mainstream theatre. A recent stage production of Bend it Like Beckham passed the test with flying colours.

It is campaigns like this that will hopefully start to make an obvious difference in the type of plays that are produced. With more women than men in the theatre industry- surely it makes sense?

My friend, Leah Holmes recently put on a play at the Brass Works Theatre in Bristol called Citizen George. The play is set during the French Revolution and follows the struggles of three prisoners; Robert, a skilled

Citizen George at The Brassworks Theatre, Bristol. From Bristol 24/7 Website.
Citizen George at The Brassworks Theatre, Bristol. From ‘Bristol 24/7’ Website.

pickpocket, Count Carpet, a snobby aristocrat and Citizen George, a thieving black solider.

We later discover that Citizen George is in fact the very talented composer, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. His fellow prisoners question their previous prejudice based on his race and respect the fact that he has succeeded in his own right.

The directorial decision to cast these male roles as women only enhances the prejudiced theme further. The fact that this could have easily been another male-centred play, makes us appreciate the refreshing element a full female cast can bring to a play about inequality.

A play set during the French Revolution was suddenly brought forwards into the 21st Century, inviting us to question our views on equality in our ever-changing society.

What I think…

More than ever, this makes me want to write more plays. I want to change the way we see women; not just as wives, sisters and mothers, but real, strong, independent women- like what we see every single day.

If you write, act, direct, dance- whatever, I encourage everyone to get together and make some darn good theatre with female characters we can relate and aspire to.

Let me know what you think. Comment below or tweet me @tesshenderson94.

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References:


Strong Female Roles Make Audiences Feel Uncomfortable, Says Leading Director: Emily Dugan, The Independent.

Does Your Show Pass The Bechdel Test?: Jo Caird, The Stage.

Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co-Stars?: Jennifer Lawrence, LennyLetter.