Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Sally Cookson’s adaptation of Jane Eyre seeks to enhance the progressive, feminist quality of Charlotte Bronte’s writing. Through physical theatre, evocative music and a fiery protagonist, this play strives to shift this classic love story into a bildungsroman. While slightly encumbered by its three-hour length and a depth of source material to untangle, this adaptation undeniably succeeds in bringing something new to well-trodden territory.
In her decision to mark the beginning and end of the play with the words “It’s a girl”, Cookson’s manifesto is clear. Bronte’s writing was remarkable for the way it gave expression to the voiceless and Cookson hinges her production on this gender and class struggle. Right from the dark days of her childhood, Jane (Madeleine Worrall) demands more from the world than the basic necessities for survival. Jane’s fight for recognition and respect are most notable in her interactions with Rochester (Felix Hayes). When Rochester forms the delicate suggestion of a bird in his hands, and shortly afterwards compares Jane to the same, Worrall explodes with anger and passion: “I am no bird and no net ensnares me. I am a free human being with an independent will”. In the days leading up to her wedding, it is clear that while Jane may be binding herself to Rochester, she undertakes this with an untarnished desire for independence, refusing to be bought by him with expensive dresses and gifts.
This production succeeds in picking out the messages threaded through the original long Victorian prose, and condenses them into powerful images, song and dialogue. Most notable is the presentation of Bertha Mason, reclaiming “the mad woman in the attic”. The decision to represent Bertha’s struggle through Melanie Marshall’s beautiful vocals is genius. Marshall’s rich and haunting voice ebbs and swells throughout the production, refusing to be silenced.
The music, created by Benji Bower, is Jane Eyre’s standout quality. Alongside Marshall, the on-stage band add an intense atmosphere, without which the play would have felt quite stark. It elevates each of the narrative’s emotions to an overwhelming level, articulating moments of joy and terror with equal talent. The music’s emphatic nature combines seamlessly with the set. Lighting, designed by Aideen Malone, is used to great effect to visualise the music’s tone, shifting from the brooding blues of a storm, to bright spring days, to the brilliant scarlet of fire.
Madeleine Worrall is well suited to the role of Jane, able to express Jane’s sorrows and sense of powerlessness, while still convincing in her passionate calls for change. Worrall is supported by a talented cast who multi-roll numerously to fill the rest of the characters. Jane occasionally engages in dialogue with these others, arguing against a cacophony of voices who represent her internal conflict. While effective at points, at others it feels like a heavy-handed exposition method. Laura Elphinstone takes a number of critical supporting roles with varying levels of success. Her Helen Burns, for instance, is an emotionally intelligent realist who manages to win our hearts, whereas her over excitable Adele with an appalling French accent is incredibly grating. Felix Hayes makes a convincing Rochester, although his performance tends slightly towards the overdramatic. However, this may be due to the considerable difference in expression needed to fill an auditorium as opposed to my small laptop screen.
While you may need two sittings to get through it, this National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic co-production is worth persevering with. Cookson has managed to translate this long yet beautiful novel into a production that both harks back to the message of the old while drawing us forward in its contemporary fight for equality. Full of life, colour and song, Jane Eyre provides escapism, for a time allowing us to fall into the emotional depths of another’s world.
Jane Eyre is available to stream for free here until Thursday 16 April.
Featured Image Source: Manuel Harlan