Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
Tuesday 27th June 2017
Reader, it’s beautiful. The National Theatre’s retelling of the gothic classic Jane Eyre delivers haunting, dreamlike set pieces combined with unexpected but gorgeous bursts of music; a real feast for the eyes and ears.
Set on a sparse skeleton of ladders and boards (with a seemingly limitless supply of props hidden under one ramp) the show recreates Jane’s life story in flashes of colour, light and sound. We touch on all the classic moments; the red room, glowing and eerie with billowing curtain walls; the cold grey drudgery of life at Lowood Institution, the smoky panic of the fire in the bedroom, Jane’s rain-drenched flight from her betraying love. Each moment cleverly accentuated with jangling music from the on-stage band, a graceful lean from a towering ladder, or shimmering lights descending from the ceiling.
“… impressively true to the original text…”
The dialogue is impressively true to the original text, weaving snippets of Charlotte Brontë’s Victorian prose with modern, pacey dialogue. As a massive fan of the book, I almost squeaked in delight hearing Rochester’s proposal to Jane recreated almost word for word.
The actors are exceptional – springing from embodying a fire, to a housemaid, to grand lady of society, to a billowing wedding veil. Special mention is deserved by Paul Mundell who makes Rochester’s faithful dog Pilot adorable and believable, despite being a 6ft bloke who’s only costume is a tail made of cord.
Nadia Clifford is a wonderful Jane, every inch the passionate, ardent proto-feminist your English teacher told you about. Her fairy-like stature (she is almost perfectly physically cast) belies the fire in her belly. Tim Delap’s Rochester is more than a match for our heroine, gruff, frenetic, with a stage capturing presence – you can clearly see why Jane falls under this gothic hero’s spell.
Bertha is by far the hardest character to interpret in the book. Melanie Marshall’s silvery voice transforms the books wailing mad woman into a sad eyed singer of haunting, drifting songs. She lingers about the stage like something in the corner of your eye; always there and not there. However, as excellently performed as Bertha is, she is also underused. The scene where she is discovered by Jane – arguably the most dramatic and shocking moment of the book – could have been an explosive and harsh piece of theatre. Instead it was a quiet, sad, reveal, with the focus on Jane’s tears over Bertha’s madness.
“Too long was spent establishing Jane’s early life in Lowood, to the detriment of the rest of the narrative.”
I was interested to learn that the show was originally a two-part production, which after a successful run in London was pared down to 210 minutes for their UK tour. The time-allowances given by cutting the play into two parts would have likely solved the only real problem that I had with the show; as for me, the timing was all off. Too long was spent establishing Jane’s early life in Lowood, to the detriment of the rest of the narrative. While each scene was heartbreakingly rendered; from Jane falling asleep on the shoulder of the dying Helen, to a group of orphans yearningly stretching their hands towards a fire, those scenes took up a lot of the first act.
Time could have been better spent fleshing out the character of Bertha, or playing with the dramas of life at Thornfield Hall (the fortune teller scene that establishes Mr Rochester’s deceptive nature was entirely cut). For someone unfamiliar with the book some plot-points were left under-developed, or explained away too quickly in the haste to speed through to the conclusion.
The second half of the play seemed to happen in a rush – which contrasted quite jarringly with the dreamlike pacing of the first act. I’d venture a guess that the last 100 pages of the book were squished into 30 minutes. Most unforgivably, the painfully raw and heartbreakingly joyful reunion between Jane and her blind Rochester took only a few seconds, meaning an obvious opportunity to play the audience’s heart-strings was wasted.
Much like the book, the play delivers glorious set pieces, and punches of emotion, but ultimately, the narrative choices leave a lot up for discussion. In my view, the show is a beautiful creation, and a wonderful visual adaptation, but doesn’t quite do justice to the story of Brontë’s classic.
Cover image: Facebook.com/WalesMillenniumCentre
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