The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyttelton Theatre Autumn-Winter 2015
The Bristol Old Vic's stage adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's novel was originally spread over two evenings, but has been condensed for this National Theatre visit into a single three-and-a-half hour performance.
The transfer from page to stage is frequently strikingly inventive, but too infrequently comes alive emotionally. You are more likely to be impressed than moved.
It is clear from the production and from programme notes that deliberate decisions were made as the company of actors devised this show through improvisations led and shaped by director Sally Cookson and dramaturg Mike Akers, to play down what might loosely be called the Mills and Boon romance elements in the novel.
With two key exceptions – the moment they declare their love and the final tableau – there is no chemistry or sexual energy between Madeleine Worrall's Jane and Felix Hayes' Rochester.
Hayes does not invest Rochester with any of the dark energy of a Byronic hero, and Michael Vale's bare set, a skeleton of ramps, platforms and ladders, evokes no sense of the atmospheric old house that is the centre of the action.
Instead, director and actors interpret the novel as a feminist piece dramatising Jane's ongoing struggle for freedom and control of her fate.
The focus of the childhood sequences is not on the cruelty of home or the coldness of school, but the girl's sense of being trapped – a recurring trope has her opening doors or windows and gasping for fresh air.
And three hours later the dramatic climax of the show is not the reunion with Rochester, but the moment she breaks away from St John's pressure to join him in a loveless marriage.
All this is a legitimate reading of part of what is going on in Bronte's novel and might even be satisfying if you did not sense so much being left out and if it were given more dramatic life.
But Jane-Eyre-as-protofeminist remains more an intellectual construct than a living character, and for too much of the evening you observe her – and the rest of the play – from the outside and at a cool, uninvolved distance.
Experienced that way, as a theatrical exercise to be judged for its cleverness rather than as a drama to be caught up in, there are some very impressive touches.
With most in the cast doubling and quadrupling roles, a repeatedly effective device has several of them play the voices in Jane's head debating as she thinks her way through a problem.
Almost every scene is underscored or punctuated by onstage musicians led by soprano Melanie Marshall giving colour and atmosphere to the moment, with only one serious misstep, the jarring and trivialising insertion of Noel Coward's 'Mad About The Boy'. (Another, non-musical, misstep makes Rochester's first spoken word a very modern-sounding obscenity.)
Casting actress Laura Elphinstone, who also plays seven other roles, as St John personifies the sexlessness he offers as an alternative to Rochester (though of course the effect would be stronger if Rochester himself were played with more sexual energy).
And while the set never allows any sense of place, the actors' constant climbing up and down ladders and moving along the ramps does occasionally evoke the tension or desperation of emotion-charged scenes.
Company and director deserve admiration for the challenge they took on and the degree to which they succeeded. But critical admiration and not emotional involvement is likely to be your experience of this Jane Eyre.
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