Jane Eyre

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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.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Our Country’s Good

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National Theatre, London

Our Country’s Good is undoubtedly a wonderful play; the text is intense, thought-provoking, heartbreaking and funny. Based on Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker, it tells the tale of the first convicts deported from Britain to Botany Bay, and how they put on a production of The Recruiting Officer in honour of the king. Even on the page, it has the power to make the reader question the very nature of humanity, and to consider how theatre can aid the civilisation of the most troubled soul.

A shame, then, that the National Theatre’s production, directed by Nadia Fall, should play up the comedic aspects at the expense of everything truly important in the play. We laughed, yes – but we didn’t cry.

The set is magnificent, and the opening moments genuinely awesome, the rotating wooden stage splitting and rising to reveal the ship’s hold, an unfortunate convict lifted through the hatch to be whipped. But the ensuing cacophony of singing and shouting from below means that we hear neither the convict’s cries nor the subsequent silence, and the unbearable sight of seeing a man so maltreated has barely any effect at all.

In truth, it’s just not grimy enough: the prisoners’ plights not desperate enough to make me yearn for their redemption in the way I have in other productions I’ve seen. By foregrounding the comedy, Fall has sacrificed a key ingredient of the play: the abject misery and desperation which marks the convicts’ lives. Nor do we get a sense of what the officers suffer: they too are far from home, cut off from everything they know. But it’s hard to feel much empathy here, when their brutality is rendered so superficially.

But it’s the music that really undermines this piece. Cerys Matthews’ score is clearly thoughtful and well-intentioned, but – for me, at least – it really doesn’t work. It undercuts the tension instead of heightening it, impeding the audience’s emotional response. The scene where Harry attacks Duckling, for example, is rendered absurd by his sudden bursting into song.

There are good things too: Lee Ross skewers Sideway’s pretensions with deft precision, and Matthew Cottle’s Wisehammer is nuanced and complex. But they’re not enough to save this production, and that’s a crying shame. It could so easily have been a triumph.

2.6 stars

Susan Singfield