Saturday, January 02, 2016

Saturday, January 02, 2016 12:11 am by M. in , , ,    No comments

Jane Eyre
devised by the Company
based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë
A co-production with Bristol Old Vic

Directed by Sally Cookson
With Madeleine Worrall, Felix Hayes, Laura Elphinstone, Melanie Marshall, Benji Bowers, Craig Edwards.

December 28, 2015.


One of the highlights of the London theatre 2015 season has been, undoubtedly, the Jane Eyre adaptation at the National Theatre. Originally devised in two parts by the Bristol Old Vic company, it was revamped and abridged into an easy-to-schedule tree-hour version for its London premiere under the direction of one of the latest wonder girls of the English stage, Sally Cookson. Her method of work is based on work with the actors not only on how to act or deliver the text but also in the creation of the text itself and the stage movements. Jane Eyre is no exception and therefore the text of the adaptation is not signed by a particular author, even if Cookson is less a participant and more the alma mater, but devised by the Company.

The Cookson method is directly related to the many good moments but also to the few failures of the production. Is quite evident that the energy of the performances, the commitment and blind-faith on the text by the actors and the communication that the company establishes with the audience owes its origins to the development of the text and the rehearsals. But it is also true that being the fruit of several minds and perspectives, the adaptation lacks in critical cohesion, taking elements from the madwoman-in-the-attic interpretation of Bertha as Jane's double (a few years ago the Shared Experience Company performed Polly Teale's version of Jane Eyre with this idea at its centre), the Gothic imagery, some Brechtian subtle humour (or not so subtle, i.e. the Pilot, played by Craig Edwards; an idea, by the way, already present in the Shared Experience production) mixed with a musical commentary in the very limit of the sublime and the self-parody... But if there is some articulating idea in the whole adaptation then that is probably the feminist reading. Even to the extreme of betraying the original text (in a play that respects in a great measure the original dialogues) in order to achieve a sort of feminist symmetry between the beginning and the end of the play. No traces, though, of any race or postcolonial comment besides the obvious casting of Melanie Marshall as Bertha.

The (critical) dispersion in the proposal is epithomised by the presence of Bertha Mason (Melanie Marshall) commenting on the narrative with a sweet mezzo soprano voice that has an undeniable theatrical effectiveness (as the whole eclectic musical selection by Benji Bowers) unifying the theatre experience to the point that the play can be described as a musical without songs. But her appearance is not as solid as in the Polly Teale version as it only traces real parallels in a few occasions (such as the Red Room moment) and in some occasions (like the Mad About the Boy song) it is not developed enough to be a pertinent comment and stays mainly as an almost humorous side comment.

Nevertheless, all these flaws are eclipsed by the electric performances of the cast. A magnetic and intense Madeleine Worrall creates a sturdy, honest, vulnerable but strong-minded Jane Eyre. Felix Hayes is a moody but adequately sardonic Rochester (with an unforgettable whisky-and-cigarettes voice, the unnatural mixing of Barry White and Tom Waits). The rest of the cast is also solid in their different and more episodic roles.

The theatrical rhythm is flawless. The action progresses without pauses and the transitions are always imaginative. Special attention is given to the Gateshead Hall and Lowood scenes, not forgeting that the formation years of Jane Eyre are full of vital experiences needed to understand how Jane behaves later in her life. Moments of intense beauty are achieved with minimal elements: the windows in Lowood and in Thornfield Hall and the intense urge to see beyond them, the wedding veil floating around the stage in an unreal and ethereal way as, in a certain way, is Jane's promise of a wedding. Michael Vale's scenography is delightfully simple but full of possibilites in its abstraction.

As the characters transition from one place to another literally running, the audience is driven by the company in a virtually irresistible trip. A semi standing ovation at the end of the performance and the comments overheard on the lobby clearly prove it.

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