Jane Eyre is one of the best loved heroines of a nineteenth century novel. She has been read and admired ever since she first appeared in 1837. She is strong minded and plain and she suffers deeply, overcoming obstacles to find happiness, allowing nothing to stop her. It’s a formula which has stood the test of time and writers have been using Charlotte Bronte’s template ever since. If you are going to put the book on stage in front of a sharp audience who know the book backwards (as one elderly lady sitting near me said when refusing a programme) then you had better get it right. Add to that a mass of plot and a novel which is written in the first person and you have a big job on your hands. Above all the central character needs a strong performance and we must never feel that we have come to the theatre to see a 3D version of a Sunday night classic television serial. There is nothing wrong with those if they are well done- and Jane Eyre has been quite beautifully put on screen- but they have no place in a theatre. It’s a big ask.
The National Theatre/Bristol Old Vic production has been brought back thanks to the huge success it had three years ago. It was devised by the original cast, with the director Sally Cookson, and its biggest achievement is its theatricality and playfulness. The set immediately brings to mind a children’s playground. It is a series of ladders, slopes and platforms and all of it is used at speed with great accuracy during the course of the play. There are some lovely moments of pure theatre throughout like the one that opens the production where baby Jane’s birth is announced and the baby is unfurled into a dress which is then put onto Nadia Clifford who plays Jane. This is storytelling and we are asked to become complicit in whatever the cast show us, whether it is a moving carriage journey conjured up from the co-ordinated movement of cast members standing shoulder to shoulder and stamping their feet or a dog who is nothing more than a flexible whippy tail in the hand of Paul Mundell. Nothing more is needed other than an actor who gives his whole self to the task so that we believe in him. The music is lovely, with some beautifully sung songs from Melanie Marshall as Rochester’s poor deranged first wife and it was a very moving device to show her wandering the stage in a blood red dress like a ghost. It made Bertha a constant presence- as she should be. I wasn’t as sure about the way Rochester was portrayed. This was absolutely nothing to do with Tim Delap’s performance, perhaps more to do with the Rochester I already had in my head.
Of course at the centre of everything is Jane herself. If that character doesn’t work then nothing else matters. A lot is asked of Nadia Clifford, both emotionally and technically. She gives us a fierce, uncompromising Jane who knows her own mind. She has a lot of injustice to be fierce about and we watch her grow up painfully and learn to master herself and grow in dignity and strength. It is a fine performance. I loved the way she was both fully emotionally present and also technically precise. There was a lovely moment towards the end of the first half where she was put in an adult dress for the first time and her whole stance and demeanour changed without a word being said. There is a lot going on in this production around her and it needed great strength and presence to keep us focused on her. Sadly she was unable to continue thanks to injury so Jenny Johns took over as Jane for the second half. This was fascinating to watch as she made the part work in a completely different way. The two actresses are very different physical types and this was a more measured, elegant Jane which I enjoyed for its own sake, as well as being full of admiration for the fact that she was able to slot into a very technical, fast production without missing a beat.
I loved this show and I am grateful for the chance to see it so close to home thanks to Hull being City of Culture. Jane Eyre is one of my favourite novels and I would not have been slow to tell you if I hadn’t.