Festival Theatre, Edinburgh – until 20 May 2017
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Resolutely theatrical and visually arresting, the version of Jane Eyre at the Festival Theatre retains the flavour of that well-loved book while succeeding admirably on its own terms. This adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s novel was originally devised for the Bristol Old Vic and is now touring in partnership with the National Theatre of Great Britain. It moves beyond the Gothic romance of governess Jane’s relationship with her employer Mr Rochester that is often the focus, including the rest of the story of what was originally subtitled An Autobiography.
Heavy stress is also placed on the book’s proto-feminist credentials, making it a plea for equality of the sexes, and downplaying some of its more old-fashioned attitudes. In particular, this is a subtly but definitely post-colonial take on the story, with its portrayal of Bertha undeniably informed by Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea – as all modern Jane Eyres probably must be.
This raises questions of its own, and the staging may not be to everyone’s taste at first. Rest assured, however, that this is very far from being a sterile, stolid, ‘heritage’ period drama. Instead – and this is not always true of ‘devised’ adaptations – there is a singular and coherent vision at work here thanks to director Sally Cookson. It makes no claims to be ‘definitive’, rather presenting a vibrant, intelligent retelling of the story that works tremendously well.
Michael Vale’s platforms-and-ladders set and Dan Canham’s movement direction contribute mightily to a beautifully fluid re-imagining, full of lithe grace, economical and constantly surprising use of tiny pieces of scenery, and a raw emotion that strikes deep into the heart of the book – never overdone, always at the service of the story.
Nadia Clifford’s Jane is always going to be at the centre of things, and hers is a characterisation of suitable contradictions – sometimes supremely poised, sometimes the servant of unfettered emotion, but never the weak, subordinate character some adaptations turn her into. It is an extremely impressive display that contrasts beautifully with some of the more expansive turns around her – notably Paul Mundell’s scarily comic teacher Mr Brocklehurst, and his wonderful turn as Pilot the dog.
Of necessity, there is a great deal of doubling among the cast, with Evelyn Miller and Francesca Tomlinson (standing in for Hannah Bristow at this performance) particularly good at differentiating their roles without exaggerating them. Singularly impressive is the way they give life to those people who seem unfathomable to modern audiences – Tomlinson’s doomed, saintly Helen Burns, and Miller’s pious missionary St John Rivers.
Any portrayal of Mr Rochester has inherent problems, particularly in a production that stresses the equal-rights themes inherent in the story as clearly as this does. Rather than seeing him though Jane’s eyes, as the book’s first-person narrative makes us do, we actually witness what he does and says, running the risk of him appearing more of a self-justifying brute than a swoonsome Byronic hero. Tim Delap walks a very fine line successfully, making Rochester much more human and aware of his fallibility than we might be used to.
Constant use is made of music both ancient and modern, with Melanie Marshall’s Bertha often providing songs that comment on and inform the action, in a way that is allusive and effective. Her voice is supremely affecting and utterly without histrionics.
There are wonderful coups de theatre here – some full of drama, others beautifully understated, such as when Aideen Malone’s lighting – exemplary throughout – is used to show children warming themselves around a fire.
Not surprisingly in such an open-hearted production, its faults are not exactly concealed. The most obvious is its sheer length. Distilled from an original two-part adaptation, it clocks in at just over three hours, and it certainly begins to drag a little towards the end of each act.
There is an almost desperate attempt to give a flavour of every part of the book. There are plenty of over-faithful touring adaptations of classic novels that seem to be designed as cribsheets for exam students more than anything else; this is not one of those, and so a little more could have been jettisoned.
Whatever the verve and invention of the staging, it does become subject to the law of diminishing returns; the music, in particular, starts to feel overused. There are odd moments of over-assertive exposition that are completely unnecessary when it is so often so good at telling the story more obliquely. Using members of the cast to voice Jane’s inner thoughts or conscience, for example, is amusing the first time but annoying thereafter.
There is also the odd moment of overt humour that feels forced, as do some of the more prosaically physical staging choices. These are few and far between, in a refreshing production that – at its best – is a shot of pure theatre.