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Striking in Simplicity as in Beauty: Jane Eyre

by on 13 June 2017

Jane Eyre

from the novel by Charlotte Brontë, devised for the stage by the company

National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic Co-production at the Richmond Theatre, until 17th June

Review by Melissa Syversen

On my bookshelf, you will find several beautiful hardback editions of literary classics from the Western cannon.  Alongside my copies of Crime and Punishment, Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights you’ll find a particularly lovely, leather-bound edition of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  All masterful works of literature.  All collectively giving me the side-eye for not having read them yet.  The guilt is real, I tell you.  Now, having seen the National Theatre-Bristol Old Vic co-production currently touring the nation, the guilt has tipped over that fine line and turned into outright shame.

Nadia Clifford (Jane Eyre) in Haworth, photos by Ellie Kurttz (3)

Though, of course, I am very familiar with the story of Jane Eyre.  How can one not be, with all the countless adaptations for film, TV and theatre over the years?  The BBC alone have multiple adaptations available, finding it mandatory it seems, to put out a new version almost every decade since the 1950s.  (I am quite partial to the Timothy Dalton 1983 version myself.)  You can’t really blame them.  The story of Jane Eyre was ahead of its time and, since its publication in 1847, it has continued to resonate with people over the world.  Hers is a story of overcoming emotional, physical and moral hardships from a young age, fighting to retain her own sense of self, her independence and her passionate, intelligent spirit.

Nadia Clifford (Jane Eyre) NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg (13)

Director Sally Cookson and dramaturg (Yes, a dramaturg!) Mike Akers have rightly decided to focus wholly in on Jane in this production.  It is easy to get lost in the infamous love story between her and Mr Rochester.  Their story is indeed a large part of Jane and her journey but it isn’t the main event.  The casting structure of the ten-part ensemble reflects this.  Every member doubles at least two roles, be it as different major and minor characters or as musicians and vocalists with the exception for Nadia Clifford.  As our strong-willed heroine, Jane, Clifford never leaves the stage and she portrays Jane with a fiery sense of agency throughout.

NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017 ensemble. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg (19)

This production was originally devised by its original company at the Bristol Old Vic in 2014 as a two-part piece.  When it transferred to the National Theatre, it was worked down to one 210-minute play.  Know this: this production of Jane Eyre is not your average piece of period drama.  We are not trapped in cramped gothic castles or bound by excessive period costumes.  Just as the qualities of the wild birds Jane so admires, there is a sense of freedom and air to this production, silly as that may sound.  I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen the phrase ‘less is more’ so aptly put to work.  The set, designed by Michael Vale, is a simple wooden structure of three levels with different black ladders spread around.  Around the playing space hangs white curtains.  Within this frame, there is an impressive flexibility for everyone to create and play using levels, choreography, music and sound.  And I must say the lighting design by Aideen Malone is particularly exceptional.  This production is as striking in its simplicity as it is in its beauty.  I really can’t heap enough praises upon the entire production team.

NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017 ensemble. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg (9)
And of course, then there is the ensemble.  Although the touring version that I saw at Richmond Theatre does not feature the original cast, I was struck by the strong sense of unity between the actors.  Director Sally Cookson has guided her cast splendidly.  Together they have found wonderfully imaginative and often playful ways of moving the action forward, utilising movement, breath and voice.  I have already mentioned Nadia Clifford and her solid performance as Jane.  Equally good is Tim Delap as Mr Rochester.  Delap has tapped more into Mr Rochester’s eccentric side than other actors I have seen earlier and honestly the man is all the better for it.  In a quite surprising way it helps bring out the hurt behind the man’s domineering exterior and it make his emotional connection to Jane all the more potent and moving.  The entire ensemble is strong and together they bring to life the large gallery of people flowing in and out of Jane’s life.  But, I think for those of us who have seen the show will agree: the one role will remain in the audiences’ memory is Paul Mundell as Pilot, Mr Rochester’s trusted hound.  I am not even joking, he steals every scene he is in.

You can tell that this production of Jane Eyre is a labour of love for those who created it.  It really is one of the most visually stunning pieces of theatre I have ever seen.  Even if you have seen every BBC series or film adaptation of Jane Eyre, you will never have seen her story told like this.   If you love Jane Eyre or just even just beautiful and inventive theatre, I would urge you to see this production.  You will not be disappointed.

Melissa Syversen

June 2017

Photography by Ellie Kurttz and Brinkhoff Mögenburg



From → Drama, Reviews

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