National Theatre: Theatre At Home
A co-production with Bristol Old Vic, devised by the original company
Director: Sally Cookson
Set Designer: Michael Vale
Costume Designer: Katie Sykes
Lighting Designer: Aideen Malone
Music: Benji Bower
Starring: Madeleine Worrall and Felix Hayes
(Photo: Bristol Old Vic)
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me” I wonder how the defiantly independent Jane Eyre would have coped with the prospect of self-isolation, a reality which yesterday had 62,000 people tuning in to watch her journey of romance, betrayal and self-discovery. Jane Eyre, devised by the Bristol Old Vic, was the second performance in the National’s Theatre At Home program, and the tone was somewhat different to the rocking laughter of last week. I was very glad to finally have a chance to see this raved-about production. However, I have a feeling that I would have liked it far more had I seen it in the flesh. This is not the moment for a discussion about whether a film of a production is worth it, because it’s all we have now, but there were several moments throughout the night when I felt very distant from the intimacy of the Lyttelton.
This certainly wasn’t the Jane Eyre of my childhood, but that was a book, and this is theatre. Lyn Gardner says in her article for Stagedoor that Sebastian Faulks “has talked how adapting a novel for the stage is like trying to turn a painting into a sculpture, and of course that is a doomed enterprise if you are too literal”. Taking this into account, Sally Cookson’s interpretation of this classic novel, not as a tale of romance but of a determined, spirited woman looking for her own place in the word, is genius. I am a big fan of Cookson’s work (see a review of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe here) and this play was no exception.
There is no doubt that Madeleine Worrall’s portrayal of Jane Eyre herself was the highlight of the show. She perfectly embodied Jane’s fiery, yet unsure spirit and subtly incorporated the influence of the other characters into her performance as the show progressed. The real test for an actor playing Jane Eyre is the “I am a free human being” speech, and it did not disappoint. She attacked the words with gusto, but simultaneously appeared startled by her own strength. It was everything I imagined that speech to be. However, I was less keen at the beginning because of the show’s generally sluggish start and also because of the forty full minutes of Worrall's baby voice. I understand she needed to make the transition from girl to woman clear, but there must be another way that doesn’t make me want to mute the whole thing.
"She perfectly embodied Jane’s fiery, yet unsure spirit and subtly incorporated the influence of the other characters into her performance as the show progressed."
Alongside her was Felix Hayes, who disappointed just as much as Worrall impressed. From a completely selfish point of view: this was not my Mr. Rochester. Other opinions are certainly available, but for me he is brooding, mysterious and handsome in a Mr. Darcy type way. Hayes focused on the broody part of the job description with such venom that all other emotions were obliterated. There was one emotion, one tone of voice, one volume (loud, in case you were wondering) and Pilot, his dog, had more personality than him. Alas, Hayes lost me the minute he fell off his non-existent horse and swore (no, I don’t think Emily Brontë would have popped the F- word in). This was a shame because I was from then on not fully invested in the relationship between the two. In fact, St John Rivers’ proposal, which included the words: “Enough of love would follow to render our union acceptable,” seemed altogether more desirable than a life with Hayes’ Rochester.
The rest of the cast were superb, however – they were everywhere and everything. At the curtain call, I was shocked to realise how few cast members had created such awe-inspiring effects in a cavernous space. A special mention must go to Melanie Marshall as Bertha Mason. Bertha, the mad woman on the third floor, is finally given a voice in this production and what a spine-chilling voice it is. Her singing made the whole project worthwhile, with songs such as Crazy and Mad about The Boy fitting into a nineteenth century play like the final piece in a jigsaw puzzle. The lighting by Aideen Malone also deserves highlighting, for propelling us from great open spaces to the twists and turns of Thornfield in a matter of seconds. The lightning's effectiveness sprang from the huge white curtain (cyclorama) draped behind the playground-type set. This served as a perfect blank canvas for the lightning's manipulation of the mood. The whole set-up gave both us and Jane the eerie impression that there was always something lurking in the shadows.
"Bertha, the mad woman in the attic, is finally given a voice in this production and what a spine-chilling voice it is. "
The problem with staging a classic book which everyone knows and loves, is that that no other form of the story is ever going to come close to the feeling we all had when we first read the book. Cookson’s production was a laudable attempt at staging a beloved story in a fresh manner, and it is growing on me. I think my biggest criticism springs from not being there in person, which of course isn’t really a criticism of the show itself. The National needs to create variety with the At Home program but I’m not sure if this was the right choice. “We all must die one day” is just not as uplifting as James Corden’s monologue about pubs which serve food. Having said this, it reminds us of the necessity of patience, resilience and love – a message we all need at this time. I can’t put it better than Cookson herself speaking of the production: “the human spirit is programmed to survive”.
This made me laugh: