Despite sitting in the living room of my childhood home, a million miles and a different world away from the physical space of the National Theatre, something outstanding about this streamed performance of Jane Eyre, directed by Sally Cookson, was effortlessly transposed onto the smaller screen. We weren’t sitting under the immense open stage, designed by Michael Vale, boxed off by white hanging cloth, observing the deceptively simple wooden frame-stage with black ladders running up, down and around it. Swathed in home comforts, National Theatre’s co-collaboration with Bristol Old Vic’s production of Jane Eyre is breathtaking in its fresh perspective.
Intimately woven and stretching the arch of Jane’s life, the play reflects the events chronicalled in the much-beloved novel of the same title by Charlotte Brontë. However, both director Sally Cookson and Madeleine Worrall (playing Jane Eyre) stressed in the digital programme that they tried to lose the stamp of a period drama. Cookson writes that she didn’t want the “authentic set and the period costume to suffocate the essence and the magic of the story,” echoed by Worrall, who adamantly argued it was “the complete opposite” of a costume drama and this production aimed to “tell the story with a visceral, muscular energy.” (Side note: both these resources are available at the NT at Home page, where they have other material on the show!)
The six main actors, as well as the full band, are present and exposed on stage for the entire three-hour-long production. Though the set is minimal, the strength of the casts’ physical interaction with the stage – often leaping, climbing ladders and lifting torches to illuminate faces – was impressive and seamless. Being so pared back made the actors’ interaction with each other more intimate, and when props were used, they were utilised for a greater purpose. For example, the bundled dress of the infant Jane at the beginning, when in the hands of Mrs Reed (Maggie Tagney) is shaken out into the plain work-dress Jane will wear for most of the production. All actors move with one another, tied around an invisible centre and to the cues from the band, which demonstrates the show’s core foundation as a devised piece; all members of the company influenced the shaping of the final production. As Movement Director Dan Canham said, through the devising process, there was a ‘democratisation of voices’ that worked seamlessly to create this flowing, choreographed depiction. Actor and set were transformed by one another, often by the actors’ physical power of suggestion alone. They had the strength to convincingly convey complex theatrical feats, such as sitting on a horse or bursting free – metaphorically I might add – from a window.
Another unsettling feature of this production that I truly think speaks to a pervasive occurrence and omnipresent reminder in Jane’s (as well as Charlotte Bronte’s) life: the fragile mortality of yourself and those around you. It begins with the death of her parents and John Reed (Craig Edwards), who slinks into a trapdoor at the front of the stage. This is how those who depart the world exit, ghoulishly reaching back for final words or trod down resolutely when it is their time. These departures would raise my hairs and send me shivering each time; they were so fraught and eerie. The live band, consisting of Music Director Benji Bower, Will Bower and Phil King, were central to all action. Often the jazz inspired melodies and motifs offered a fresh outlook on the soundtrack to these great, well-loved story. They effortlessly guided scene to scene and incorporated melodies that were more traditionally associated with the period into this new, exciting sound. Their central position brought the setting a kind of vibrancy and buzzing excitement, as they were also directing the movements and the pace of the production.
The acting itself was remarkable. Craig Edwards (who also played Mr Brocklehurst and Mason) embodied Pilot (the dog) so incredibly well that he began to seriously merge into that role. Worrall brought a slight manic stare to this Jane Eyre and she and Rochester clashed and shouted their lines of love to one another as oppossed the usually soft and gentle admittance of love. Laura Elphinstone – who had the most named character shifts in the production – was an excellent Helen Burns and yet a too-shrill Adele screeching in excited French and then a too-shrilling St John in the latter half of the play. Simone Saunders (predominantly playing Bessie, Blanche Ingram and Diana Rivers) was an interesting recurring double (as was Hayes ultimately billed as Rochester). She was Jane’s mother at the beginning and Hayes played her father. Visually this suggested that Jane would find in Bessie and Diana the maternal figure in her life after her mother’s death and in Hayes, as Rochester, the patriarch. However, this easy reading of the doubled of roles is confounded by the other switches, as the cold Blanche Ingram stops Saunders from falling into a neatly categorised matriarchal figure repeated over again.
The most poignant scenes for me were the introspective moments where the cast came together to voice Jane’s inner monologue. My mother suggested that, because these voices were embodied as three female and a male voice, this could be a representation of the power of the story-telling of the Bronte siblings. Whether this was a conscious decision or not, it has stayed with me since watching the production. They come together in a shared movement as she dons her wedding dress; it was a visually strong statement suggesting that, although Jane had little else in the world, she had these voices bolstering her through her life.
The most powerful portrayal was that of Bertha Mason, played by Melanie Marshall. Her incredible voice narrated the shifting changes in Jane’s life, from beginning to the end. Her reveal as Bertha, the mad woman in the attic, is a powerful assertion of a character that, like the band, has been so central and anticipated, yet marginalised in both books and adaptations. Bertha’s sung narration of Jane’s life asserted a shared connection. After the big reveal that Rochester already has a wife, they pass each other on a raised platform, Bertha handing Jane her governess’s smock and Rochester, below, clutches the discarded wedding gown. This incarnation of Bertha suggests that she is experiencing the world on a different plane because of her mental illness. This portrayal (as well as casting a woman of colour as Bertha) is much more in line with Jean Rhys’ feminist, colonial portrayal of Antoinette Cosway in Wide Sargasso Sea. She, like the production, gave Bertha a voice that had been ignored in this famous novel. Amongst the incredible talent (who could expect less from the NT), Marshall was an undoubted highlight. Through the astounding medium of her voice, this production granted this voiceless, ‘mad’ character a shiver-inducing way of communicating that is impossible to ignore. It is too mesmerising and haunting to ignore.
Jane Eyre taught me not to sacrifice my own moral standpoints if it meant living a life that was untrue to yourself. She leaves Rochester when she can no longer bear to live dishonestly with herself, and returns again on her own terms, under different circumstances. Cookson, in the programme, talks about how she saw Jane’s “need to be fed, not just physically, but emotionally, spiritually and intellectually” and how Jane saw this as “fundamental” to our “basic human needs.” This production, wonderfully performed and available here, certainly gives this central core of Jane Eyre’s character a declared space that she entirely owns on her own terms.