Review: Jane Eyre

The National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic
Theatre Royal Glasgow, until June 10th

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Carrying a wealth of accolades, the NTS/Bristol Old Vic production of Jane Eyre begins enticingly. The raked stage is on three levels and the actors clamber about it with the use of ladders, reminiscent of the deck of a ship. The huge white drape of a backdrop might just as easily be sails to carry us on the tempestuous journey to come, or curtains on the many dark windows of Thornfield House, but they most effectively serve as a canvas upon which an array of lighting transports us between scenes. A set of drums, a piano, guitar and accordion promise a live band and doesn’t let us down.

The production brings the best of what theatre can offer. Director, Sally Cookson, and her creative team evoke the grim poverty of the time; the intrusive, all-encompassing fire and brimstone religious climate that once dominated everyday life is present throughout. The cast are at their most powerful during the set pieces, their physicality is strong and the choreography dynamic, reminding us sometimes of Complicite, sometimes Stomp. The music is loud and embraces world styles – here is English folk, Christian Latin, Spanish guitar, a hint of Weill. It’s rowdy, rigorous, vigorous. This is a stage where anything can happen: people become sheep, they pee on stage, they die then get up and walk off. The actors play and the audience laughs along at the lunacy of a man playing a dog… Yes! This is what theatre is about!

However, when the music stops and the dust settles, the text doesn’t always support the show’s high octane early promise. Jane’s slow enthrallment in the magnetic force of Rochester’s secretive personality is barely explored. The relationship between them arrives quickly and lacks emotional depth, though Nadia Clifford as Jane Eyre packs a devastating punch. When Jane meets St John Rivers and his do-good sister, Diana, the trials of adapting novels for stage really becomes clear. The section feels overly long and when we return to the ruins of Thornfield there is a distinct sense that all the drama has happened off-stage. The earlier sense of danger that is evoked so well through the use of candles and numerous flame-coloured lightbulbs goes for nothing. There are odd musical choices too. A rendition of Mad About The Boy and, later, Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy, throw us straight out of the world of the play, despite their terrific arrangements. Special mention should be made of the singer, Melanie Marshall, whose performance is classy and assured, but whose position as Bertha Mason does not become clear until too late in the proceedings. Paul Mundell impresses also, as does Hannah Bristow, whose portrayal of five distinct characters confirms her as one to watch out for in the future.