The National Theatre’s touring adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is two acts of impeccably well-crafted staging, acting and audio that captures the intent and spirit of the novel while masterfully straddling the line between tradition and modernity.
Just a handful of actors play the novel’s plethora of characters, with Jane and Bertha Mason remaining the only constant faces throughout. Jane’s sense of self is her only constant, and the audiences experiences this along with her, through the constantly changing roles of the rest of the cast.
This small cast is utilised again in the play’s bold approach to gender. Instead of hiding the fact that many of the actors play a gender different to their own, this play acknowledges and ultimately celebrates it. We see bearded school girls, and St. John (a stock figure of the patriarchy) played by the same actor who had just depicted Bessie (Jane’s childhood nanny and only maternal figure).
The seamlessness with which this is executed is testament to the skill of the production’s actors. Nadia Clifford’s Jane and Evelyn Miller’s multiple roles, from a voice of Jane’s inner conscience to the missionary St. John, stand out as exceptional performances. However, each member of the cast plays an integral part in forming the dynamic on stage which creates the play’s incredible focus on human suffering, emotion and relationships.
The staging throughout the play serves to magnify this. It is a simple wooden structure, but the company transforms it to easily convince us of a young girls’ institution, or, moments later, a stately home. This focus on humanity is what really captures the essence of the Bronte novel. It is the human spirit rather than material wealth or embellishment that is having attention drawn to it, and we see this enacted on stage in the set as well as the acting.
Though described as ‘mad’ by other characters, Melanie Marshall’s Bertha Mason is full of subtlety and sympathy; her sporadic interjections of song highlight Jane’s distress and her own repression. Particularly unexpected, yet hauntingly and astoundingly fitting, was her mournful rendition of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ as Thornfield hall burns down at her hands. It is through the characterisation of Bertha Mason, Sally Cookson’s directing achieves a sympathy that is both emotionally haunting and politically significant.
It is not only through this character that music is employed creatively and carefully. A group of three musicians join the cast on stage at all times, denoting through both lyrics and music the passage of time as Jane travels from one home to the next. This device feels natural; though initially surprising to see instruments on the stage, they quickly became a crucial part of the play’s landscape. Like the other unconventional aspects of this play, it was not hidden, but celebrated.
This production is a stunning achievement. Detail and skill may be at its core, but what marks it as outstanding is its raw empathy and understanding of human suffering.
Photo credit: BrinkhoffM + Agenburg