On YouTube until 16 April 2020
The problem with staging a classic novel is that everyone has a slightly different view of how it should be done – many have tried and few have fully succeeded. The benchmark for this sort of work, of course, is the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby back in the early 1980s which set about reproducing and, dare I say it, enhancing the complete text. Jane Eyre, a collaboration from the National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic based on the novel by Charlotte Bronte tries a similar tack and covers, as far as I can recall, all key incidents from the original. This makes for a somewhat overlong evening – unsurprising as in its first incarnation the production was (again like Nick Nick) two separate plays.
This is a defiantly feminist reading of the text, devised by the original company and marshalled by director Sally Cookson. Madeleine Worrall does a fine job in capturing and portraying Jane’s uncompromising spirit, often seen as defiance by her contemporaries. She transcends the roles imposed on her by her family and society and goes on a literal journey of self-discovery. Presented as a series of set-piece challenges, Jane moves from location to location gathering inner strength as she goes and always recognising when it is time for her to leave and move on. Worrall is completely believable and shows the heroine’s fortitude and resilience.
As the other half of the romance element of the story, Felix Hayes is not in the usual mould of Mr Rochesters. This at first comes as a surprise as we have come to expect a strapping, brooding hero. While Hayes is aiming at the latter, he sometimes comes across more as distracted than distracting although his performance gains in strength as the piece proceeds. Melanie Marshall is a beautifully clear singer giving literal voice to the little-seen (in the book) Bertha Mason. The surprise inclusion of the songs Mad About The Boy and Crazy are shiver-inducing.
Most of the remaining cast – and it’s surprising to realise in the final line up how few of them there are – play multiple roles and act as an ensemble. Among these Laura Elphinstone stands out as a saintly Helen Burns, a mysterious Grace Poole, a spirited Adele and a sombre St. John Rivers. Credit too to Craig Edwards who as well as playing human characters takes on the role of Pilot, Rochester’s faithful dog, and wins over the audience with nothing more than a piece of knotted rope for a tail.