The National Theatre’s tour of Jane Eyre came to Woking last night in dazzling fashion. Directed by Sally Cookson, this imaginative staging of Charlotte Brontë’s classic 1847 novel quickly grabs you by the soul and sucks you in.
We begin with Jane’s birth. “It’s a girl!” the cast call as actress Nadia Clifford voices the screams of her character’s infant self; the folded dress that young Jane will soon be dressed in stands in as the newborn. It’s one of the many clever uses of costume in this production.
We follow Jane through her unhappy childhood. The set, a stark maze of ladders and walkways, becomes first Gateshead Hall, where Jane endures the cruelties of her cousins and her Aunt Reed, then Lowood school, run by the tyrannical Mr Brocklehurst (terrifyingly played by Paul Mundell). With just wooden walkways and a white backdrop, a sense of place is provided by clever lighting in the case of the Red Room, where Aunt Reed confines a terrified young Jane as a punishment, and the work of the ensemble cast who don schoolgirls’ uniforms to act as Jane’s classmates (even the magnificently-bearded Tim Delap, who later plays Rochester.) After Jane’s best friend Helen Burns (played perfectly, among four other roles, by understudy Francesca Tomlinson) dies, Jane is encumbered by the trappings of womanhood; on stage she is dressed in her corset, petticoat and sensible grey dress. She becomes a teacher at Lowood but yearns for “liberty or at least a change”. She advertises for a governess’s position and is offered a job at Thornfield Hall.
After a carriage ride, soundtracked by the on-stage band and the chanting of the town names to give an idea of distance, Jane sees a rider thrown from his horse, accompanied by his dog. We know it’s Rochester, but she doesn’t. There is no horse, of course, Delap uses the ladders of the set to “ride”, and Pilot the dog is played by Paul Mundell. It’s a testament to his skills that not only can he switch from the despotic headmaster to the adorable dog, but that his woofing and panting get warm, not incredulous laughter. A grown man pretending to be a dog, or a schoolgirl; a man on a ladder straddling thin air – these all have the potential to be excruciating, or silly. In this production they work, because they are integral parts of the play. Pilot’s reaction to Jane in the final scene of the play make that scene. The cast voicing Jane’s inner thoughts allow her to have a dialogue with herself (in particular in my favourite scene of the book, where she tells herself to draw a harsh self-portrait in chalk, then one of Blanche Ingram in the “freshest, finest, clearest tints”.)
Rochester leads Jane to believe he will propose to Blanche (played by Evelyn Millar), but of course it is Jane he loves. He finally proposes after a dramatic scene, where Jane gives her famous “I am no bird …” speech. Another on-stage costume change has her wedding dress and her governess dress floating before her. Of course, she chooses the wedding dress. At the wedding Rochester’s secret is revealed – he is already married to Bertha Mason. It is Bertha who set fire to Rochester’s bed, Bertha who laughs in the night, Bertha who ripped Jane’s veil in two. Bertha has been a presence from the very start of the production, singing a soundtrack in a rich mezzo-soprano. She is played by Melanie Marshall, who is magnificent. Her singing subtly narrates the action – the mad woman in the attic is the one who sees the truth.
All of the cast other than Clifford and Marshall play multiple parts – all are brilliant. As well as Mundell’s switch from headteacher to hound, Evelyn Millar is equally at home as society beauty Blanche and handsome but repressed St John Rivers. Clifford, as Jane, and Delap, as Rochester are perfect. The production has special effects of real fire, but the flames fade in comparison to their chemistry on stage. The cast, the production, the music, the costuming, even the accents are flawless.
In the final scene, Jane returns to the now-blind Rochester. He knows it’s someone familiar from Pilot’s reaction, but only when Jane touches his hand does he realise his love is returned to him. His sightless eyes rest on Jane as he folds a coat into the shame of a newborn baby – it’s a moment as tender and intimate as what it represents. In a mirroring of the start of the play, Rochester holds the newborn baby and declares “It’s a girl!” In the book it was a son, but it seems right and fitting here that Jane should have a daughter.
This is a reimagining of Brontë’s masterwork which puts the book’s proto-feminist themes of freedom, self-determination and equality of women front and centre. I am a card-carrying member of the Brontë Society and have read Jane Eyre dozens of times. This production is not just the best adaptation of the book that I’ve seen, it makes me love the book even more. This is a modern Jane Eyre which takes the heart of the novel and makes it shine even more brightly.
[Catherine Rogan 31 May 2017]
Jane Eyre is at the New Victoria theatre, Woking from Wednesday 31 May to Saturday 3 May at 7.15pm, with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm.