Jane Eyre, Marlowe Theatre Canterbury and touring
If you are looking for a pretty frocks type of adaptation, then Sally Cookson’s version of Charlotte Bronte’s tale is probably not for you. It is not conventional. Cookson’s approach was to strip the novel back to its bare bones, to liberate it from under flounces of petticoats.
This is done using a highly physical approach, on a set made of platforms and staircases of wood, and iron ladders, like a child’s climbing frame in the days before health and safety. Although the characters still wear period costume, even these are stripped down versions. The whole thing has the kind of ingenuity I generally associate with smaller-scale and lower budget shows. For example, all of the cast play multiple roles (even the small band of musicians), indicating changes in character with simple additions like shawls or hats. This extends to the physical performances as well. With only one set, the characters run on the spot to give a sense of travelling to another location. It may sound odd, but it’s weirdly effective.
So, overall does this approach work? For me, wholeheartedly yes. It gives fresh life and heart to the characters, and to the story itself, although it did take me a little while to settle into it. The first twenty minutes felt a little little disjointed, and if you’re usually a viewer of more conventional theatre, the style takes a bit of getting used to. However, by the time Jane bids farewell to her dying childhood friend Helen Burns I was definitely snivelling: the show had me, and it continued to sweep me along from there on in. Another unusual aspect of this production is its use of music – as well as the on-stage band, a variety of numbers are performed by Melanie Marshall’s hovering Bertha Mason. This music includes renditions of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ and Noel Coward’s ‘Mad About The Boy’, as well as more traditional numbers. I really loved the incongruity of the modern songs – again, it gives characters we all thought we knew a fresh jolt of life. The almost constant presence of Bertha reminded me – in a good way – of one of my undergraduate essays, which suggested that Bertha almost represents the wild side of Jane’s personality, with both frequently associated with fire imagery.
Of course, with this kind of stripped-down approach, you need a good cast: fortunately, we’ve got one. Nadia Clifford is excellent in the title role, developing convincingly from the angry child to the passionate woman. Tim Delap brings just the right kind of brooding charisma (and a very impressive beard) to the role of Mr Rochester. The rest of the cast play multiple roles, with special mentions to Hannah Bristow as Helen, Adele and others, and Paul Mundell, one of whose roles’ is as Pilot, Mr Rochester’s dog.
So, it may not be your average adaptation, but if you love the novel, and want to see a version of Jane Eyre which captures the fire at the heart of the original, go and see this with an open mind, and let it work its magic.
Jane Eyre is touring, and will then run at The National Theatre. https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/jane-eyre-on-tour https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/jane-eyre