Before people have finished clambering over you to get to their seats, a band of actors are marching onto to the set. A short, frizzy haired woman in a white smock stands downstage. She opens her mouth and bawls. What follows is five minutes of intense physical theatre as the ensemble re-enacts the death of Jane’s parents to the heavy beat of a live band.
If you’re into physical theatre, you’ll be hooked in the first ten minutes; if the thought of a grown woman impersonating a baby makes you wince, you’ll be tearing your hair out for the whole three and a half hours.
Our reactions at Culture Whisper were divided. Some fell in love with Cookson’s reimagining of Bronte’s much-loved novel. They applauded the in-your-face boldness of the adaptation, feeling the terrors of Jane’s childhood, the mortification of unrequited love: all of it. Others felt the malarkey of actors becoming dogs, then sheep, then carriages, left the emotions somewhat in the lurch.
Whatever your stance, the play certainly has the courage of its convictions. It is a devised play, 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 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.
Indeed, the music is one of the play’s undeniable strengths. Benji and Will Bower have enriched the production with a huge variety of styles; sweeps of piano, winsome folk ditties, minimal electro, touches of bluegrass. Melanie Marshall’s voice is otherworldly in its beauty and accompanies much of the action. That said, her Bertha Mason lacks aggression and is not too original. Likewise, Tim Delap's gruff, booming Rochester is a touch clichéd. Bearded, fierce, and inexplicably petulant: this depiction didn't stray too far from convention.
So be warned, this is bold, divisive theatre; you'll be thrilled, or frustrated. Book now to find out.
|What||Back for 2017: Jane Eyre, National Theatre|
|Where||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|