Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, London (****)
Sally Cookson’s much acclaimed Bristol Old Vic-National Theatre adaption of Charlotte Bronté’s Jane Eyre is a feast of fluidity and visual invention. First staged at the Bristol Old Vic last year in two parts, at the National it’s been honed down to just over three and a quarter hours – a long haul in normal circumstances but wholly justified. Cookson’s true-to-its-period but modernist version seldom flags and provides powerful arguments as to Charlotte Bronté’s pioneering spirit promoting the rights of women to a full exercise of their imaginative lives.Not that book adaptations are new; they’ve been around a long time, emblematically the RSC’s Nicholas Nickelby (1979), Bill Bryden’s NT Lark Rise to Candelford and from the 1980s, Mike Alfreds’ string of Shared Experience successes such as Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and under PollyTeale, their own Jane Eyre. Max Stafford Clark and Neil Bartlett too have had their share of book adaptation successes.
Cookson’s version then follows a time-honoured tradition and does so with some panache whilst adhering to the minimalist, spare staging favoured by her predecessors.
Credited as `devised by the Company’ and set within a simple structure of platforms and ladders, what makes this Jane Eyre notable is its economy, its musical motifs – a live trio is onstage for most of the time – and the underlining of Jane’s journey from child orphan and powerlessness to author of her own destiny. In Madeleine Worrall’s wonderfully grounded Jane, we come to see `unjust’ and `freedom’ as Jane’s driving motivators. Fighting words indeed.
There is much else besides, suggested swiftly by a gesture, a song, a short exchange, as for example, Laura Elphinstone conveying the TB-wracked death of Helen, Jane’s only friend at the appalling Lowood educational institution, by the tiniest of head movements; or Craig Edward’s canine companion, Pilot, flopping hind legs akimbo next to Felix Hayes’ bearded gruffly guilt-ridden Mr Rochester.
Add exceptional singing from Melanie Marshall providing a constant, mellifluous musical commentary on Jane and Bertha’s emotional and spiritual states and you have a production that will undoubtedly send new generations rushing to the original.
Great team work. Very fine.
Jane Eyre is at the National Theatre to Jan 10, 2016
First published in Reviewsgate Sept 2015