The REP, Birmingham, Monday 4th September, 2017
The REP’s new season gets off to a flying start with this highly-acclaimed production from the National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic. Adapted from Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel by the original cast, this is a faithful and spirited retelling with a heightened sense of theatricality – without breaking the fourth wall.
On a sparse set of steps, ladders and walkways, the story plays out with director Sally Cookson conjuring up locations, weather, time of day and setting, mainly through her actors, and enhancing effects through judicious use of sound and lighting effects. What we get is a wealth of invention and creativity that allows the power of the tale to come through.
The eponymous Jane (an indefatigable Nadia Clifford, who doesn’t seem to leave the stage) is orphaned, abused and neglected as a child but never loses her sense of right and wrong or her tendency to speak out. Her employment as governess to the ward of Mr Rochester at last exposes her to love and life – and the pains that they can bring. Clifford is a formidable presence, although tiny, she gives voice to Jane’s outbursts; we have no choice but to be on her side through all her tribulations. Tim Delap is an eccentric Rochester, grumpy and mercurial, yet somehow dashing and irresistible. The other cast members come and go as supporting characters: Lynda Rooke’s cruel Aunt Reed contrasts with her kindly Mrs Fairfax; Evelyn Miller provides Jane with rare warmth and friendship as Bessie and then swanks around as the worldly Blanche Ingram. Special mention must go to Melanie Marshall’s haunting vocals as the unfortunate Bertha Mason, but it is Paul Mundell who almost steals the show as Rochester’s dog, Pilot!
Theatricality is maximised for greatest effect: Jane’s travels are energetically depicted – even the act of opening a window is stylishly presented. The melodramatic elements of Charlotte Bronte’s narrative are all there, with contemporary music highlighting the modernity of the story. The inclusion of standards like Mad About The Boy is both clever and apt, but no less effective is Benji Bower’s original score.
A real feat of theatre that breathes new life into an old story, the perfect marriage of form and content, Jane Eyre charms, amuses and touches in all the right places. Even if the three-hour running time (extended by a delayed second act on this occasion!) numbs the bum a little bit, your head and your heart will think the time is flying by.