First performed at the Bristol Old Vic in 2014 as two separate performances, Sally Cookson’s imaginative re-creation of Brontë’s masterpiece was combined into one show for the National Theatre, albeit three hours and fifteen minutes long. Currently performing at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre until the 20th May, Jane Eyre is a powerful, emotional piece which will keep you engaged from beginning to end. 2017 marks the 170th Anniversary since the publication of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel, Jane Eyre. Although many people will be familiar with the plot, having studied the novel at some point during their education, Cookson’s adaptation is suitable even for those who haven’t read the book; this performance stays both faithful to the novel, whilst also making it appropriate for the stage.
Jane Eyre tells the story of a spirited orphan girl from the north of England during the 19th century, following her experiences of the cruelties of life, which many suffered during this bleak period. Following the death of her parents, Jane is taken in by her maternal Uncle’s family, the Reeds at Gateshead Hall. Despite promising to raise Jane as her own, Mrs Reed notoriously fails to live up to this promise and allows her children to torment Jane. At the age of 10, Jane is sent to Lowood Institution, a school for poor and orphaned girls, where she continues to experience ‘unjust’ punishments and other misfortunes, including the death of her only friend, Helen Burns. As an adult Jane becomes a teacher at Lowood until she eventually becomes a governess and is sent to Thornfield Hall to educate Mr. Rochester’s French ward Adèle. The connection between Jane and Rochester develops throughout the story, however his past eventually catches up with him, as the source of the strange noises in the night is slowly revealed.
Michael Vale’s wooden set consisted of platforms, catwalks and ladders, which was easily transformed from Gateshead Hall to Lowood to Thornfield Hall with very simplistic changes. Initially I was uncertain of the chosen design for the set as it seemed a bit like an obstacle course. However, movement director Dan Canham ensured that the space was well utilised and the movement was integral to the fascinating interpretation of Brontë’s novel. The lighting design by Aideen Malone was also incredibly creative with crimson light flooding the stage when Jane was locked in the Red Room, and lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling to depict Thornfield Hall. The technical elements of the performance added to the imaginativeness and gripping nature of the play, particularly when the stage was set ablaze during the destruction of Thornfield manner.
As the centre of attention throughout the play, Nadia Clifford’s portrayal of Jane was mesmerising. She captured perfectly the “plain but pretty” persona demanded by Brontë’s vision of Eyre within the novel, and shifted flawlessly from playing the stubborn and outspoken 10 year old girl, to the adult Jane whose character evolved into a greater maturity without becoming weak. The rest of the cast are just as impressive as Clifford, with many taking on multiple roles throughout the performance. Especially noteworthy was Tim Delap’s performance of Mr. Rochester who was able to be both commanding and human. Similarly, it would be hard not to mention Paul Mundell’s performance as Pilot, Mr Rochester’s faithful dog, providing the audience with some light humour, from the constant wagging of his makeshift dog tail to collapsing into the lap of his master.
Music was provided throughout the piece by a small band consisting of percussion, guitar and an accordion entangled in the set at the back of the stage. Composer Benji Bower’s music provided the performance with a hauntingly beautiful score, infused with a jazz-folk twist that perfectly mirrored the volatility of action throughout the play. The play was occasionally interrupted by Melanie Marshall’s powerful voice as she sang eerie renditions of modern pop songs. Although these songs did appear slightly out of place initially, they nonetheless added to the gothic ambience as the performance progressed. Marshall’s renditions of “Mad About the Boy” and “Crazy” were made even more appropriate when it is revealed that she is in fact the ‘mad woman in the attic’ (also known as Mr. Rochester’s first wife, Bertha Mason) responsible for all of the mysterious events occurring at Thornfield.
Cookson captured the essence of the novel yet created a stunningly original adaptation, which whisks the audience away on an emotional rollercoaster. From the very first wails of baby Jane at the beginning the play to the very final scene, the audience are able to engage and empathise with the protagonist’s character, in a way that was compelling, creative and breath-taking. Whether you have read the novel or not, I would thoroughly recommend this performance.