You have to feel for Jane Eyre, one of the most unlucky heroines in classic literature. Her life was one of low after low, orphaned soon after birth, hated by the family who took her in but saw her as a cuckoo in the nest, sent away to a school where she was treated brutally, losing her best friend to consumption and ill treatment, and when she finally breaks out as a governess and falls in love with her boss, the mysterious, and let’s be honest, rather strange Mr Rochester, her plans for true love are thwarted by the maniacal tendencies of the first Mrs Rochester, not so safely locked away in the attic.A sad and desperate story, but one with all the juicy ingredients to make a riveting, deliciously dark and Gothic piece of theatre. And, in the latest collaboration between the National Theatre and the Bristol Old Vic, that is exactly what you have.
Jane Eyre, which opened at Birmingham’s Rep Theatre last night, has all the hallmarks of a piece of work from the National Theatre, in that it stays faithful to the Charlotte Bronte story, but puts a very modern twist on the tale through the use of sparse and industrial style sets and music from a live band and the incredible vocal talent of Melanie Marshall as the mad, bad Bertha. The talented cast of six principals, plus Melanie, perform a series of roles with aplomb, with only the incredible Nadia Clifford as a spirited, driven Jane playing only one role.
The action through the early part of the play is moved on quickly. But certain scenes resonate as they establish that young Jane has a strong and honest character and a real sense of right and wrong. Lynda Rooke is a deliciously evil Mrs Reed, sworn to treat Jane like her own child, but instead viciously bullying and victimising the child before sending her away to a school governed by the God Fearing bully Mr Brocklehurst (Paul Mundell). Jane develops a friendship with the saintly and sickly Helen (Hannah Bristow) but finds it hard to understand how Helen accepts undue punishments without hate. As a young adult Jane has progressed to teaching in the school herself, but feels trapped and imprisoned, and so moves out to become a governess to Adela (again Hannah Bristow – I love her in this role, so effervescent.) It is only on meeting Mr Rochester that Jane discovers passion and love in equal parts, giving Nadia Clifford free rein to show a range of emotions to devastating effect, and to show real chemistry with the charismatic and commanding Tim Delap as Rochester.
This is a brilliant production of a classic book that is both full of surprises, doesn’t shrink from violence or politically incorrect treatment and labeling of women, but also has the power to shock and delight, particularly in the use of a favourite Gnarls Barkley hit single to illustrate the fate of Bertha and Rochester. And whilst it doesn’t end with ‘reader, I married him’, it is satisfying to lovers of the book in every other way.
The Rep, Birmingham 5-16 September
Click here for ticket information