This new production at Bristol Old Vic gets round the first issue by dividing the novel into two parts. It gets round the second by having almost no scenery at all, just a structure that the actors work round. When the play began I looked at this dubiously. I was even more dubious about the first five minutes, in which the infant Jane Eyre is born and orphaned. Fortunately, my doubts were swiftly dismissed as the play got into the swing of things. I was pleased they hadn't tried to modernise Charlotte Bronte's magnificent dialogue, instead picking judiciously from her words, adding a few new where necessary. But the stirring speeches in which Jane Eyre stakes her claim to justice, humanity and dignity are present and correct, and as moving as they should be.
|Photo: Simon Annand|
One thing which marked this version out from others I'd seen was that it was very much interested in the journey of Jane, and that Mr Rochester was only a part of this. In other versions the affair with Rochester is the story, with all else thrown into the background, whereas in this I felt that Jane Eyre herself, not Jane Eyre the romance, was really the item of interest. Whether this was because the production was directed by a woman, and so came out with a slightly different emphasis, I can't say. But I liked it. It's a subtle difference, but it's a difference between a story in which love wins the day, or one in which integrity and courage wins the day. This version, I think, was the latter.
Any actor who plays Jane Eyre has a challenge on her hands, as she needs to be both small physically and yet great as a person, and rather mousy, yet have enough attractive about her to drive a man to distraction. Madeleine Worral, as Jane Eyre, was absolutely and entirely perfect, being both dwarfed by the emptiness of the stage, and yet quite able to command it. As for Mr Rochester, played by Felix Hayes, he was fine, though a bit shouty for my tastes. But he had a hipster beard and I'm sorry, Mr Rochester should not have a hipster beard. Also, he was sometimes upstaged by his dog. The dog, played by Craig Edwards, was one of the highlights of the production. Another highlight was Melanie Marshall, whose beautiful, haunting singing was worth the ticket price alone. It's such a relief and a pleasure to see female performers who are not interchangeably blonde, and who have a bit of presence and force to offer.
My only quibble is that I'm not totally convinced they had to stretch it to two separate plays, and do think a bit of judicious cutting could have seen it off as one (maybe a three-act?) play. Nonetheless, a thoroughly excellent production, and one of the best things I've seen at Bristol Old Vic in a long time. I really hope it makes it beyond Bristol, as it definitely deserves more than a short run.
Jane Eyre Parts 1 and 2 is on till 29th march.