JANE EYRE at the Bristol Old Vic

Jane Eyre 2Richard Burton used to tell the story of playing Hamlet with Churchill in the front row of the audience intoning the lines of the famous speeches along with the actor. Whilst Jane Eyre may not be full of quotable lines, there is the hazard, for actors and director, that many if not most of the audience will have a strong idea in their minds of what Rochester and Jane are or ought to be like. The best way round this is to go back to basics, find the sinews of the story and let the rest take care of itself. In devising this production the director and cast have done just that.

In what might be seen as a brave, but to my mind an essential move, Sally Cookson has decided to treat not merely the romantic love story which lies at the core of the novel, but also the wider context of a young woman battling against convention, prejudice, class, poverty, religion and the rest of the stultifying oppression from which women have been emerging for the last century and a half since the novel was written. It is perhaps a sad reflection that Charlotte Brönte’s cris de coeur still ring as rallying cries today.

In spreading this devised piece (i.e. there was no script on day one of the rehearsal) over two sessions (Part One takes us up to the early time at Thornfield) the company allows the writer’s themes to develop. So, moving swiftly through her childhood we see the brief promise of love from her uncle followed by scenes of isolation within a loveless family, the retreat into books and the crushing of spirit under the education system designed more for chastisement than learning. The young Jane is seen using all her resources of will to withstand her time at Lowood under the soul scourging regime of Mr Brocklehurst, played with chilling sanctimonious rectitude by Craig Edwards who with equal commitment does an amusing and convincing turn as Rochester’s dog, Pilot.

Sally Cookson uses all the colours in the theatrical palette – music, lighting, movement – to lift the story from the page. Her confidence in using all the stage bears fruit and certain scenes, such as the journey from Gateshead to Lowood make for great theatre. Likewise the expression of Jane’s release into and yearning for the wider world on her arrival at Thornfield is beautifully realized. She is served well by a talented cast.

Madeleine Worrall’s youthful Jane deals in confident broad strokes with the necessary collapsing of time and her growth from girl to young woman (before your very eyes – more great theatre) is effected with apparent ease. At Thornfield she brings passion and determination to the relationship with Rochester. She serves the character well. The ensemble device of showing Jane’s inner dialogue works well in bringing out her strength of character as well as the occasional doubt.

Felix Hayes gallops into Jane’s life a bluff, gruff, dishevelled and broken Rochester who nevertheless finds in Jane a worthy intellectual sparring partner and a source of hope for his own salvation. Laura Elphinstone gives a tour de force as she moves between the submissive and tragic Helen Burns, the vacuous Adele and the blindly devout St John Rivers.

Simone Saunders is equally comfortable with haughty Blanche Ingram and down to earth Bessie whilst Maggie Tagney gives a series of carefully defined cameos as Mrs Reed, Mrs Fairfax and Lady Ingram.

Benji Bower’s music brings to the production something no reading can ever match. His mixing of folk and contemporary pop is deft and always well pitched to the action and it pulls off the trick of being emotionally supportive without being intrusive whilst gently pulling in the direction of the present day thus underlining the contemporary relevance of the themes of the play. He is served well by the excellent musicianship; Will Bower’s atmospheric percussion, the playing and singing of Phil King and in particular Melanie Marshall whose clarity of singing makes you want to weep at the perfection of it.

The director and cast get the most out of Michael Vale’s adventure playground set, which adapts in mood thanks to Aideen Malone’s lighting whilst Mike Beer’s sound design brings nature and drama to the show.

We are very lucky in Bristol to have a theatre willing to take on such a project and give the company the resources sufficient to realize it. However it doesn’t merely deserve our support, it earns it through productions, like this, of the highest quality. ★★★★☆  Graham Wyles    February 2014


Photos by Simon Annand