The on-stage rake is steeper than usual in this stage adaptation of Jane Eyre, at an angle I’ve not personally seen at the National Theatre since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. But it seems as though the set is incomplete, with wooden structures and ladders, as though Thornfield Hall, or the Lowood Institution for that matter, was still at the framing stage of construction. Aside from the decent performances from a well-drilled cast, it is only through some decent lighting (Aideen Malone) that there is ever a real sense of the gloomy nature of the place, as per the descriptions in Charlotte Brontë’s famed novel.
I was interested to discover that the show in its original form at Bristol Old Vic in 2014 was in two parts – that is, four acts in total, rather like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Having seen the truncated one part, two act production it now is, I suspect the longer version must have been dramaturgically more complete. Here, although it is a largely faithful rendering of the novel, covering all the salient points and then some, this production has a habit of suddenly jumping from one scene to the next. With only rudimentary scene changes, it can feel disjointed, even disorienting, as some effort is required to establish at the start of each new scene whether the narrative is now in a different location to the scene before. Further, quite how much time, story-wise, has passed between the end of one scene and the beginning of the next is not always clear.
Despite a steady pace, then, and a three-hour plus running time, it still came across as somewhat hurried. That is better, I suppose, than a production that is too much of a slog. A live on stage band (in the alphabetical order given in the show’s programme, Matthew Churcher, Alex Heane and David Ridley) add some atmosphere to proceedings, supplemented well by the vocals of Melanie Marshall, who also plays Bertha Mason, the first wife of Mr Rochester (a suitably dulcet-toned Tim Delap). The National Theatre seems to like Gnarls Barkley’s chart-topping song ‘Crazy’, having previously used a version of it in their 2011 production of The Comedy of Errors. I won’t give it all away, but suffice to say it isn’t about or used against the mentally unstable Mason.
The title character, played by Nadia Clifford, is always on stage, and her costume changes are thus performed with the audience looking on. Paul Mundell’s Pilot, a dog, didn’t quite hit the spot with everyone – some in the opening night audience chortled while others were distinctly unimpressed – though as a performance, the animal movements and sounds were as authentic as they could reasonably be. Unfortunately, at least from my vantage point, the sound levels between the music, whether it was live or recorded, and the performers was not always perfect, and the odd lyric was missed.
Familiarity does not always breed contempt. Despite knowing what was going to happen, even if I had no idea how precisely it would be staged, I retained a genuine interest in the show. There were moments of humour, too. Whether they were intentional or not is another matter. A toilet break during a long journey went down a hoot with the audience, though my highlight was the rather absurd use of modern-day energy saving lightbulbs as lanterns in a Victorian setting. An instance of both colour and gender blind-casting takes place in Evelyn Miller’s St John. Miller’s mannerisms and physicality, which even extended to manspreading, were impressive.
It took a little while for the show to grow on me, but it nonetheless proved an intriguing and intelligent production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Following a critically acclaimed season at the National Theatre and a UK tour, Jane Eyre returns this September.
The classic story of the trailblazing Jane is as inspiring as ever. This bold and dynamic production uncovers one woman’s fight for freedom and fulfilment on her own terms.
Jane Eyre’s spirited heroine faces life’s obstacles head-on, surviving poverty, injustice and the discovery of bitter betrayal before taking the ultimate decision to follow her heart.
A co-production with Bristol Old Vic based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë devised by the original company
Running Time: 3 hours inc interval
Tuesday 26th September – Saturday 21st October 2017
National Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre
South Bank, London, SE1 9PX