Digital theatre review: Jane Eyre (National Theatre)
Ivan Radford | On 15, Apr 2020
“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!” wrote Charlotte Brontë in 1847, and those words ring true throughout the Bristol Old Vic’s 2014 production of Jane Eyre.
Filmed at London’s National Theatre, the production runs for three hours (including a 30-second interval) and if that sounds like a long time to retell the Gothic romance, there’s a reason for that: the play, adapted by Mike Akers and devised by the original company, doesn’t just focus on the relationship between Jane and Mr Rochester, but charts our heroine’s life right from childhood through to the familiar end.
That determination to keep the scale as wide open as possible is beautifully balanced with a minimalist production design. Michael Vale’s staging is remarkable, turning the obstacles that face Jane into ladders and platforms out of reach, unearthing a grave from underneath the stage floor, fusing the prison of the orphan’s childhood home with her cruel aunt with the brutal borstal-esque life of Lowood school, both environments where Jane feels trapped behind dark windows.
And yet she pushes on and through, played by Madelene Worrall through all of her ages. Worrall is brilliant, committed, vulnerable, determined and resilient, capable of compassion and love even in the face of bitter betrayal. When we see her find friendship in the unexpected companion Helen Burns, it’s a joy. When we witness her left alone by a tragic loss, it’s a heart-wrenching blow. When we join her in being paired with an excitable new ward, French pupil Adele, it’s hilarious.
The fact that both Helen and Adele are played by the same person – a chameleonic Laura Elphinstone – brings out the echoes between the two positive figures of influence, but also sets the bar for the production, which sees the whole supporting ensemble take on multiple roles. That decision makes Worrall’s steadfast, constant presence all the more striking; this is, at its heart, the story of one trailblazing woman who seeks freedom, and fulfilment, on her own terms.
And yet, those hopes and dreams unfold almost in direct negative correlation to the pain of another unseen woman, and the play delicately juxtaposes the two by position Melanie Marshall on the edge of the stage, singing modern soul and pop songs with nerve-tingling intensity. Accompanied by live music on stage, they ring with pertinent insight and a playful wit, from Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy to Noel Coward’s Mad About the Boy.
The boy, of course, is Mr Rochester, played with a glowering yet warm, imperial yet dishevelled presence by the charismatic Felix Hayes – rivalled only by Craig Edwards as his enthusiastically loyal dog, Pilot. But while he’s a crucial part of the story, he’s also not the be all and end all, and director Sally Cookson steers the plot, the cast and the choreography to keep a sense of perspective, and ensure each element of the show is viewed through Jane’s own lens. The result is elegantly simple in its retelling of the novel, combining a haunting, sparse setting with a vividly intimate focus. At one point, the whole thing erupts into controlled yet chaotic fire – a dazzling, alarming spectacle that’s full of soul and heart.
Jane Eyre is available on Sky Arts until 27th January 2021. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand legally on NOW, for £9.99 a month, with no contract and a 7-day free trial.