National Theatre, London
Jane Eyre is one of my favourite books, but I’ve been bitterly disappointed by most film and theatre adaptations, despairing of directors who interpret Jane as quiet and reserved. Thank goodness then for this collaboration between the National Theatre and Bristol’s Old Vic, devised by the company, which is by far the best I have ever seen.
It’s a dynamic interpretation, eschewing the rigid formula of a period drama, in favour of a more holistic view of the novel. This makes for a surprisingly faithful telling of the narrative: free from the confines of a naturalistic set and strict chronology, director Sally Cookson has created space for Jane’s whole story to be centre stage.
The set is functional: a series of wooden boards and platforms linked by steps and ladders. It works, each of the locations rendered believable by the way in which the actors interact with it. This is a very physical production, with actors hurtling up and down and all around. With less assured direction it could all seem chaotic; in these hands, it’s a lively, energetic delight, with all Jane’s feisty, angry, raging spirit spilling out over the stage.
Madeleine Worrall, as Jane, embodies that spirit perfectly, and Melanie Marshall’s musical Bertha, dressed in red and looming large throughout Jane’s life, is truly glorious: Jane’s inner self writ large, demanding both our attention and our care.
There is humour too. Craig Edwards’ Pilot is a triumph of physical theatre: a huge, enthusiastic, bounding dog brought convincingly to life. Laura Elphinstone’s Adele is equally engaging, a needy, sweet and funny child, just desperate for love.
But this is ensemble theatre, and the whole cast work together well. I can’t do justice here to the breadth of ideas sewn so seamlessly into this play. It’s an imaginative, exciting and innovative piece of theatre, breathing fresh life into a tale I thought I knew too well.
Do try to catch it if you can.