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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Lyttelton)


  Felix Hayes and Madeleine Worrall/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

It’s unconventional to start an overwhelmingly favourable review with a warning, but here goes: This isn’t a Jane Eyre for flinty traditionalists. Those expecting lowering Victorian buildings, rugged Yorkshire countryside and rows of pale-faced orphans would do better to return to the classic 1943 film starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. However, those who feel that, at the venerable age of 168, Jane could benefit, for a season at least, from some fresh perspectives, are strongly encouraged to head to the National for a long, involving and rewarding evening.

Not only does this production reinvigorate and make us consider anew one of the most famous novels of all time, it also announces the arrival of an important directorial talent in the form of Sally Cookson. Cookson has been a name to watch for some time now, but this definitively confirms all the rumours. Her joyous, devised take on Charlotte Bronte involves a seven-strong, multi-role-playing acting ensemble and three on-stage musicians and is a giddy, kinetic production of perpetual motion. Each scene, dripping with clever little touches, is freshly re-minted in Cookson’s trademark physical style. I wouldn’t even like to guess how many miles the actors cover over the course of the three-and-a-quarter-hour playing time.

One of the many benefits of Cookson’s approach is that it strips away all the dusty period accretions that Jane has picked up over the decades, and leaves us instead with what caused such a stir upon the book’s publication in 1847, namely a pulsing, vital account of an ill-served young girl who is determined to make her own way in an unfavourable world, where single women of no fortune looked forward to bleak futures. Madeleine Worrall, with her open, questioning face, proves a quiet marvel in the title role, moving seamlessly down the years, forming and strengthening her indomitable sense of self through every unkind blow that life deals her. How Mr Rochester (Felix Hayes) could even think about the footling Blanche Ingram (Simone Saunders) once Jane has arrived is bewildering.

Music is always integral to Cookson’s productions, and thus her little band is nestled into the middle of the set of planks, ladders and platforms. It’s not often that a staging of Jane Eyre is going to involve a drum kit, but nothing about this feels like a glaring intrusion of modernity. Instead, music gives rise to one of Cookson’s most inspired conceits: Rochester’s first wife Bertha, the so-called “mad woman in the attic,” is here portrayed by singer Melanie Marshall. Sweepingly elegant in a red silk dress, Marshall haunts the action with her plaintive melodies.

Cookson is intent on laying bare Jane’s moments of psychological anguish, particularly where Rochester is concerned, and she uses her ensemble to deft effect to achieve this. At moments of particular high feeling, actors voice the conflicting tumble of thoughts in Jane’s head, while Worrall continues to stand still with all the propriety expected of a Victorian governess. Rochester’s moody brooding pales almost into insignificance when compared to the emotional access we are given to Miss Eyre.


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