In the opening minutes your heart sinks a little further. We have all the clichés of modern theatre; adults as wailing infants, actors speaking in unison, and that dreaded, slo-mo backwards flail. Someone's watch beeps. You settle yourself in for a long three-and-a-half hours.
But then, ten minutes in, you’re hooked. This play really, really works. Yes, it has all the trappings of a well-meaning, overly-ambitious, unsuccessful production (huge time-frame, enormous cast of characters, modernising agenda). But, wow, this is a lesson in pulling off page-to-stage adaptation.
So how did Old Vic Associate Director Sally Cookson do it? The piece, after all, is 'devised', meaning that when rehearsals began, there was no script, no read-through; just a rough structure and a group of actors. 'It was just us as a company, making a leap into the unknown,' Cookson says. 'We had to trust that eight weeks later we’d have two shows to perform. Luckily – and by the skin of our teeth – we had.'
This method of heavy, immersive rehearsal means that, physically, the company could not be more in tune with one another. They don’t miss a beat; every movement, every twitch, is so well choreographed, so tight, that you can hardly believe it's happening live. We can feel the hour upon hour of rehearsal that this slickness took to perfect.
The second effect of the devised nature of this piece is in its the purity and clarity. Cookson and her company stripped Charlotte Brontë's novel down to its bones; what was left was plot and emotion. Instead of a period piece, populated by rakish land-owners and sighing heroines, the magic, the passion, the raw pain is allowed to remain intact.
Let's look at another adaptation for comparison; Cary Joji Fukunaga and Moira Buffini's 2011 film, starring Mia Wasikowska, for example. It is beautiful, clever, and measured. We're shown long shots of the Yorkshire moors, water dripping from leaves, Wasikowska, looking beautiful in a bonnet, walking through the fog. And yet, the whole thing just seemed a bit quiet, a bit chilly. Wasikowska's (improbably beautiful) Jane and Fassbender's Rochester felt a long way off.
Where Fukunaga's film is remote, Cookson's play is direct, in-your-face. As a result, we feel it all with Jane. The terrors of her childhood, the mortification of unrequited love: all of it. When Jane feels self-conscious, let down, surplus to requirements, so do we. The supremely talented Madeleine Worrall is allowed to shine in the title role. This play does not, as so many do, focus on the Eyre-Rochester love-tangle. Like the book, it's about a bright, ordinary girl, with pretty rotten luck and an almost inhuman resilience.
The direction has some brilliant little twists. The recurring motif of Jane-as-caged-bird comes to a head when she arrives at Thornfield, where two members of the cast flap her dress. The music soars – she is free – and the effect is beautiful. Jane's long, uncomfortable journeys by coach are inventively, hilariously captured by the entire cast running on the spot, side-by-side, panting and exhausted. Perhaps the most beloved of all the characters was Richard Hurst's Pilot the dog. More canine than human, his performance was a tour de force, complete with a wagging riding-crop tail, lolling tongue and those huge doggy sighs that every owner will recognise (and adore).
The music was, on the whole, great. Benji and Will Bower enriched the production with a huge variety of styles; sweeps of piano, winsome folk ditties, minimal electro, touches of bluegrass. Occasionally, though, the music intruded slightly too far into the action. When the fabulous Melanie Marshall came out with some more familiar songs, Gnarls Barclay's Crazy, for example, it felt heavy handed. Marshall's Bertha Mason, clad in a red gown and with an opera diva's demeanour, was not one of the most original moments. Likewise, Felix Haye's gruff, booming Rochester a touch clichéd. Bearded, fierce, inexplicably petulant: this depiction didn't stray too far from convention.
One more quibble: the half-hearted and promptly aborted inclusion of the inheritance subplot, where Jane discovers a rich relative and her own small fortune. This is alluded to, and then dropped. Why include any mention of it at all?
Nevertheless, this production was one of the most engaging things we'd seen on stage since Norris's tenure began. Beg, borrow or steal a ticket.
|What||Back for 2017: Jane Eyre, National Theatre|
South Bank, London, SE1 9PX | MAP
|Nearest tube||Waterloo (underground)|
26 Sep 17 – 21 Oct 17, 7pm, matinee performances on Tuesdays and Saturdays
|Website||Click here for more info from the National Theatre|