Theatre: Visceral and Innovative, Jane Eyre Still Packs a Punch

I often find myself lost in Victorian novels, following ladies dressed in crinolines as they cross cobbled streets, or hiding amongst mudlarks who hover outside penny gaffs. I have wondered whether it is the 19th Century in which I truly belong: a maid of all work dressed in a corset laced too tight, scrubbing the cold floorboards of my master’s study as I daydream about life as an author. But who, in the 19th Century, would read a woman’s work and take her seriously? 

In 1847, an exciting new novel by Currer Bell was making even Royals salivate. It told the tale of an orphan named Jane Eyre who, after being sent away from her Aunt’s home to an institution, becomes a governess at Thornfield Hall where she meets Mr Rochester, her employer. Jane, an independent and strong-willed young woman, falls - rather intensely, in love with Mr Rochester, however, he harbours a secret: locked in the attic is Bertha Mason - his wife, a woman who, plagued with madness, is driven to feed Thornfield Hall to fire and flame. At the time of publication, it was considered absurd that such a psychologically fervent and impassioned novel could have been written by a woman, but it was soon revealed that ‘Jane Eyre’ had been penned by the daughter of a church minister; a woman named Charlotte Bronte. 

Over the years, Bronte’s well-loved novel has been adapted for film, TV and the stage. Now, after a critically acclaimed run at Bristol Old Vic and the Lyttelton auditorium at the National Theatre, Sally Cookson’s ‘Jane Eyre’ tours the UK - and it is simply stunning. 

The company have devised an adaptation which captures the very essence of Bronte and her poetic voice, but which is easy to follow - especially for those who have not read the book. It is not predominantly a love story, nor a period drama; Katie Sykes’ costume design is purposefully simple yet authentic, using primarily mute colours, except for that of mad Bertha Mason’s striking red gown. Overall, it is an autobiography of a young girl who, in ignoring the demands to control her passions, becomes a headstrong maverick.  

The storytelling is diverse, contemporary and genderless with the company taking on many roles, regardless of sex. Men become schoolgirls at Lowood Institution, and Evelyn Miller is St John - the man who requests Jane to accompany him to India as his wife and missionary. Paul Mundell who plays both Mr Brocklehurst and Mason also enrolls Pilot, Mr Rochester’s playful mutt, provoking many a coo and chortle from the audience as he pants and pounces about the stage. Nadia Clifford and Tim Delap bring to fruition the Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester of my imagination. Clifford’s journey from the scruffy 10-year old Jane who swings from a doorframe to a mature governess is silk smooth, with subtle adjustments of intonation and stance. Tim Delap is the bearded Mr Rochester with rugged aggression, sharing a subtle intensity with Clifford as the two protagonists are ensnared by love.

The beating heart of National Theatre’s ‘Jane Eyre’ is Jane’s raw desires for freedom and independency 

The story weaves through Michael Vale’s playground of wooden scaffolding and iron bars, creating a set only enhanced by Aideen Malone’s lighting design, Benji Bower’s composition and Dominic Bilkey’s sound design. Bold reds wash over the stage foreshadowing the fate of Thornfield Hall, and lamps with yellow bulbs evoke a cosy fire in the cold common room at Lowood. There are intermittent effects of thunder and recorded voice-overs, but most of the sound effects are imaginatively created by the percussion of the body and the human voice, with Jane Eyre’s frantic door banging made by the stomping of feet and the sounds of a whip composed by the company’s breathy whistles.

The arrangements of Noel Coward’s ‘Mad about the Boy’ and Gnarls Barkley’s hit ‘Crazy’ are fittingly eerie, executed with haunting vocals by the disturbed Bertha Mason, who floats across the stage with a ghostly disposition. Building tension is established in the musical accompaniments performed by actor-musicians David Ridley, Alex Heane and Matthew Churcher, enhancing the feelings of madness which undercurrent the whole piece, until the climactic peak arrives when Thornfield Hall is put to torch, and fire licks the stage. 

Director Sally Cookson states: “I was keen to explore the themes and get to the heart of the story and characters in a theatrical way. I didn’t want authentic set and period costume to suffocate it, killing the essence and magic of the story.” Cookson has artistic power, using simple concepts to create strong imagery. In fulfilling these visions, the company have a unique sense of togetherness; actors use their bodies in perfect synchronisation to create a moving train and, in representing Jane’s conscience, the company preen and groom in choreographic harmony as she readies for her wedding. 

The beating heart of National Theatre’s ‘Jane Eyre’ is Jane’s raw desires for freedom and independency, a piece heavily driven by the power of the story. It is fearless and stimulating theatre which quickens the pulse, with every thought, action and word imagined. Without being doused in commercial spectacle, ‘Jane Eyre’ has become one of the most visceral, innovative and inspired productions I have seen.

See theatre and storytelling at its best by booking tickets for ‘Jane Eyre’, touring the UK until 23rd September 2017. See Website for details: NationalTheatre.org.uk/JaneEyreOnTour

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