‘It’s a girl’ – the words that both open and end director Sally Cookson’s stage vision of Jane Eyre. In my opinion, there couldn’t be a more apt way of rounding up Charlotte Brontë’s well known tale. Jane’s journey from powerless child to strong, spirited, independent woman in this production highlights what Bronte’s story is truly about: a struggle for one woman’s individual equality and liberty, or, in short – just the story of an ordinary girl. While Jane herself may be ensnared by no net, this production certainly ensnared and enthralled the audience, including myself, from start to finish.
The choice to adapt such a popular and established novel to the stage was always going to be an ambitious one, yet director Cookson has risen to the occasion by creating a very open, modernist version of the classic novel. Michael Vale’s ingenious set certainly reflects this ethic – you will find no wooden panelling or intricate period detail here. Rather, a stripped back wooden platform and various ladders that dominate the stage space, allowing for near constant fluid movement from the characters and the interesting utilisation of different levels of space. The actors’ engagement with this set also allowed for poignant moments and emotions in the story to be conveyed. The world weary way Jane (played by Madeline Worrall) climbs the ladder after her discovery of Rochester’s terrible secret, conveys superbly the character of a woman who has suffered immensely, yet, must keep on going.
“Several members of the company switched to representing Jane’s inner thoughts, a fascinating theatrical device that effectively showcased Jane’s inner turmoil”
The acting throughout the production was superb, with the relationship between Jane and Rochester (played by Felix Hayes) being conveyed in the witty, spirited, yet tender way that we have all seen in our minds eye from reading the novel. Hayes’ Rochester suitably commands the stage in a sardonic yet passionate portrayal of the much beloved anti-hero, while Worall’s Jane plays off this with a sparky feisty performance. The pair provide comedy throughout the burgeoning stages of the relationship (note: tell a man to his face that he isn’t handsome and see what happens); delightful, angry passion as they come together, and intense sadness as they part.
Other members of the cast switched fluidly between various roles, a standout being Joannah Tincey, who plays angelic Helen Burns, the excitable Adele, serious missionary St John Rivers, and the sinister servant Grace Poole. Several members of the company switched to representing Jane’s inner thoughts, a fascinating theatrical device that effectively showcased Jane’s inner turmoil at key moments. Craig Edwards also deserves a mention for his performance as Pilot the dog, a comic role that often threatened to steal the stage completely!
“Cramming such a hefty novel into a 3 hour production, it is inevitable that some measure of detail would be lost”
The portrayal of Bertha (played by Melanie Marshall), the notorious madwoman in the attic, is one that is handled with particular care and attention. A constant presence on the set in her iconic red dress, Bertha was, refreshingly, not the violent animalistic terror that she can be perceived as from the novel, but a sad mournful figure that clearly had been wronged just as much as Jane. She had no spoken lines, but contributed throughout the performance through the medium of song. Marshall’s hauntingly beautiful voice fills in for the emotions of anger and pain that Bertha is not afforded by the source text, her rendition of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ being one of the highlights of the show. The way the contemporary lyrics resonate with a character that is well over 150 years old is uncanny and certainly sends a shiver down the spine that is hard to shake.
The first half of this production was slightly weaker than the second; the first, at times, giving the impression of skipping quickly over sections necessary to the plot in order to get to the ‘better’ content that came after the interval. Jane’s time at Lowood seemed to pass in the blink of an eye compared to the rest of the play, however, in the cramming such a hefty novel into a 3 hour production, it is inevitable that some measure of detail would be lost.
The last chapter of the novel begins with the line ‘Reader I married him’. Yet, the closing line of this production, ‘It’s a girl’, to me, feels far more appropriate. Cookson’s production highlights throughout that Jane Eyre is not merely a story of love and marriage, but, more significantly, the story of a woman fighting for the right to just be herself. Whether you have read the novel or not, this show is certainly a must see.
‘Jane Eyre’ is running at Theatre Royal, Nottingham until Saturday 13th February. For more info, see here.