Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is the original plain Jane, the poor, orphaned girl who is dealt a bad hand. If life was toast, Jane’s slipped off the plate and landed butter side down.
In screen adaptations, we are usually introduced to her as an adult – not seasoned by her experiences but soured, straight-laced, turning up like a puritan Mary Poppins at Thornfield where she is tutor to Mr Rochester’s charge, the French girl Adele.
In this version by the National Theatre in association with Bristol Old Vic, we begin at the beginning with Jane being dragged up from a screaming baby to a tantruming teen. She sticks her heels in where she can, and where she can’t she bolts. Credit goes to Sally Cookson for her whittling back of a dark and sorrowful tale of struggle rather than the smoke and mirrors of flowers, romance and colourful costume we often see in period drama.
Jane Eyre’s timeline is a gnarly one. Searching for air and expanse she finds no peace from unjust punishment. She hides and is grabbed back into cruel routine while death takes every kind person from her. Those who should love and care for Jane instead epitomise the cruelty of human beings. But then she comes to Thornfield, the irascible and irresistible Mr Rochester and her life takes a different path.
In this production of Jane Eyre, currently at The Lowry in Salford, Bertha Mason (Melanie Marshall), the mad woman in the attic, seems more like a caged bird as Marshall sings many of the atmospheric songs. It was a great touch to have the actor playing Bertha, Rochester’s (Tim Delap) dirty secret, as a musical narrator; this serves as a constant reminder of her fate and unjust treatment.
Bertha makes us remember that people are a product of their experiences; some, like Jane (Nadia Clifford), become the person they want to be later in life. Others, like Bertha, have their building blocks taken from them and are incarcerated and hidden from polite society until they blow. Maybe that is an important aspect to Jane Eyre: the minute she tows the line, keeps her emotions under the surface, she’s finds acceptance, but scream and shout about how bad it all is and the keepers of the parameters lock you in the attic.
I like the choices made here with Bertha – she is the most vibrant character in the production with her flame-red dress and beautiful songs. But she is pipped to the post for my affections by Pilot the dog (Paul Mundell) who is adorable and a welcome bit of natural love in among the many conflicts.
Everything here is stripped back – story, aesthetics, dynamics. The place to sit and reflect is in the music courtesy of the live band; songs offer reflection. The characters run and climb through the narrative in such a way that Jane, as in Brontë’s novel, has no chance to grasp the good bits until the end. Good for her, she deserves it.
Jane Eye, presented by the National Theatre in association with Bristol Old Vic, is at the Lyric Theatre, The Lowry in Salford until April 15, 2017. For more information, click here. For tour details, click here.