Friday, 21 February 2014

Review: Jane Eyre, Bristol Old Vic

I love Jane Eyre, it's one of my favourite books. I love film adaptations of it. Nonetheless, I'd have thought it a hard book to put on the stage, not least because it's quite long and complex, but also because lots of the action takes place in open, bleak locations.

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
I was also really pleased that the costumes were undistracting, and era-appropriate. The plain set worked well, matched with the simple costumes and - though this might seem a strange thing to praise - absolutely brilliant lighting design. A number of lanterns did multiple duty as the stars, the windows of Thornfield, and also as the fires that the characters huddle over. It made for a very atmospheric production, in which there was often darkness or half-light on the stage. You really feel yourself clinging to the little warmth which warms poor frozen Jane, as she arrives at Thornfield for the very first time. In the scenes at Lowood School, they threw up the giant, terrifying shadow of the proprietor, making you feel you'd shrunk to the size of a child.

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.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that it could probably have worked better as a single performance. But I really enjoyed it anyway!