Director Sally Cookson adapts Brontë’s enchanting epic with a minimalism which is, at first, surprising, but works wonders in the National’s Lyttelton. As someone who is yet to read the novel, this was a sensational introduction which kept things succinct (except the running time, standing at a slightly strained three hours).
The wooden set – designed by Michael Vale and complete with metal railings – and all the props are instrumental. As we follow the protagonist (played by Madeleine Worrall) through the years, we see how other characters shape her, from school friends to family members (Line of Duty‘s Laura Elphinstone and I Think We Are Alone‘s Simone Saunders are amongst the wider company). When they leave her life, they are with her as parts of her thought process, spurring her to keep moving forward. We see it no less in her many journeys by cart. With no animals on stage – except the dog Pilot, impressively played by Craig Edwards – we instead see the company jog on the spot together, accompanied by a lively and pounding drum beat. It’s a certain restlessness in the scene changes, music and Eyre’s character which gives the production a fairly solid pace.
This then leads us to the music, with vocals from Melanie Marshall. For a staging so emotional and, at times, delicate, her performance is a fitting accompaniment. Aideen Malone’s use of handheld lightbulbs to illuminate the set is equally stunning, accentuating the moments we need to see.
One moment in particular, which the live cameras did well to pick up, is the glistening in the eyes of Worrall – one which is at times fiery, while at other points, tearful. On the exterior, we see it in her pushing against the frames and in her delightfully descriptive dialogue (“I am no bird, and no net ensnares me”), but such a watering of the eyes – the said ‘windows to the soul’, if one were to indulge in the flowery philosophical language of the time – provides a glimpse into her inner conflict, grief and turmoil. The issue itself is the ‘necessity’ to keep moving on in search of liberty, whilst also determining when such an ambition is satisfied.
Similarly, we see commentary on the spirit of Eyre in her interactions with lover Mr Rochester (Felix Hayes), a haunted fellow no doubt drawn to the lady’s untampered tenacity and strong will. As much as we follow the protagonist in her search for meaning, we see the many men she encounters try to enforce a purpose or status upon her. Some of the enjoyment, alongside her development, is seeing her rejection of such expectations, or if not that, then the way in which she takes the role and makes it her own.
While my attention faltered at times when watching (in part down to my own tiredness together with a long duration), in keeping it to the essentials, Cookson’s Jane Eyre isn’t overly flowery, rather celebrates the bare minimum necessary to tell a story on stage. A rich script is given the space to breathe and a story spanning years is given the time it needs to bloom. I may well be tempted to pick up Brontë’s book at a later date, but for now, this co-production from the National and Bristol Old Vic breathes fresh air – or rather, Eyre – into the novelist’s work.
Jane Eyre played at the Lyttelton Theatre from 26 September to 21 October 2017.
It is available to view online for free via the National Theatre’s YouTube channel until 16 April.
Production Images: Manuel Harlan.