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Fringe Online 2020

Jane Eyre

National Theatre/Bristol Old Vic/NT Live

Genre: Adaptation, Drama, Feminist Theatre, Fringe Online Theatre, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: NT Live At Home

Festival: ,

Low Down

The second of NT Live at Home. Sally Cookson had adapted a two-part version and then developed this at the Bristol Old Vic, transferring to the National. The Company have adapted this.

Michael Vale’s constructivist design with raked stage and ladders from a single elevation is striking, played on by the lighting of Aideen Malone. Bower’s music too slinks from Michael Nyman to thrash to a direct cheeky quote out of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony Avalanche. Musicians Benji Bower, Will Bower and Phil King are onstage throughout. Mike Beer and Dominic Bilkey’s sound is as full as a moors storm. Costume designer’s Katie Sykes. Dan Canham’s Movement Director. Renny Krupinski’s Fight director, and Dramaturg Mike Akers.

Screen director Bridget Caldwell relishes the chance to sharpen the smoky visuals on a bare set, and PR-positioning as well as zoom quietly on intimacy and conflict. We’re also treated to more of the ensemble shouting questions from the wings. Lighting Director Bernie Davis doesn’t lose the tang of theatre but lets nothing intrude around the stage. Conrad Fletcher’s sound is a discreet envelope, embracing the surround of laughter and applause. Technical Producer’s Christopher Bretnall, Producer Emma Keith, Assistant Producer Sam Psyk Executive Producer’s David Sabel, Production Manager Jasmine Sandali, General Manager Flo Buckeridge, Scripts Supervisor Laura Vine. Till April 16th.


The second of the National’s NT Live at Home is – like One Man Two Guvnors, an adaptation. But that masterpiece is a transformation of a great original. This is that treacherous medium, the classic novel. Second-rate ones make for riveting theatre beyond their original merits. Classics often fall flat. Not this time. Staged in 2017 NT At Home re-screen a piece often seen in schools beyond the original NT Live.

Jane Eyre’s so imprinted on our national consciousness that plot points omitted are taken up in the swirl of any adaptation. The delight of confronting the whole novel is not just a gritty romance with Rochester, the pot of blackened gold at the end of it. It’s an awkwardly German-named thing Bronte knew well: the Bildingsroman, a birth-to-maturity journey that makes this so universal and just one reason this adaptation’s so electrifying.

And here Jane Eyre at one point abandons German grammar for Hindustani. So much in the novel acts as director Sally Cookson terms a clarion for women’s equalities that a full version blasts that message from birth to consummation.

Cookson had adapted a two-part version then developed this at the Bristol Old Vic, transferring to the National. The Company have adapted this, though Cookson’s guidance and immersion in Bronte surely shape it.

Michael Vale’s constructivist design with raked stage and ladders from a single elevation is striking. It’s like a National Theatre workshop, composer Benji Bower’s three-piece of bass guitar and percussion with piano at the back where a perimeter walk skirts the whole – and eruptions from that are spectacular if long-looked for.

Bare-boarded bleak and raw, played on by the lighting of Aideen Malone it hardly comforts anyone: lighting’s usually red, glowering or plain thunder – and occasionally descending stars. There’s torch-lit moments and stalking shadows to turn Vale’s set from moor to drawing room in a flicker.

Bower’s music too slinks from Michael Nyman to thrash to a cheeky direct quote out of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony – the Avalanche scene at the point the Ingrams have arrived. Indeed this adaptation is almost a quasi-musical, haunting  the action as much as reflecting it – mostly to stunning effect if on screen these dilate a little.

Another lies in the physical use of percussion and cast members running on the spot to denote stage coaches. Musicians Benji Bower, Will Bower and Phil King fully deserve their line-up at the end, are indeed omnipresent. Mike Beer and Dominic Bilkey’s sound is as full as a moors storm.

It’s what you’d not expect of course that thrusts this version before anything else you’ll imagine before hurrying back to the novel. A swirl of cloth depicts baby orphaned Eyre soon made flesh in Madeleine Worrall who’s virtually never absent, furrowed and rebellious to the cruelty Maggie Tagney’s Mrs Reed, aunt by marriage foists on her. Tagney enjoys her contrast with warm Mrs Fairfax later, all contained fuss and kindly pragmatism; even her facial expression suggests a different person.

There’s lengthy reflection on this stage of Eyre’s life: Worrall glowers with a ten-year-old’s justice – particularly her vicious treatment by Reed’s son – carried forth to Lowood and branded as a liar before she’s got there.

To further ferocious treatment Eyre escapes into the dour calm friendship of Helen Burns, the first of Laura Elphinstone’s roles. Here wiry stoicism and gritty forgiveness contrasts deliciously with her wild excitable avatar Adele, the spoilt French child Eyre later tutors, and as St John Rivers, a very different voice of piety. Elphinstone plays the small roles of Poole and Abbott too.

There’s a jump-cut, no kind Miss Temple to intercede and gentle Eyre’s condition. Worrall’s eighteen-year-old self now teaching at Lowood solidifies a very particular Eyre. Hard-bitten, with a veiled ferocity hard-earned that spills out at injustice. Worrall’s expression and lithe movements make us capable of believing in someone nurtured on the moors, particularly in the way the physical theatre demanded of all sends her up and down ladders with awkward-looking though artfully-constructed long dresses. Acrobatics alone here are hair-raising. Added to which actors intone a chorus at critical still points.

Enter Felix Hayes’ bearded forwardly-hunched Rochester exploding expletives as Eyre’s figure unhorses him. Indeed more froward than forward. It’s here Craig Edwards can throw off his grim schoolmaster or later Mason roles and delight in the physicality of Pilot, Rochester’s waggy dog – indeed Edwards holds a tail in his right hand and strategically flicks it, almost stealing the show just at the right point. Hayes’ interactions with Edwards are one of those nodal moments of delight and calm that take this production into the realms of physical theatre, timeless and timely.

Edgy chemistry between Hayes and Worrall fans an epic sense of two people gnarled by circumstance who, instantly attracted as they are, have so many reasons to distrust themselves let alone each other.

Hayes conveys the abrupt electric intelligence of Rochester, his dangerous simmering sense of how he’s wronging everyone, and Worral’s quietly probing reluctant carapace giving way to one of the most violent declarations of love in the literary or theatrical canon.

This production nails this elemental attraction through balancing fierceness with fierce intelligence, independent spirits who won’t be ruled by anyone – but perhaps, each other with compete union the only relationship possible. Worrall’s vehemence makes this believable. Hayes is superb but it’s the breaking-out of a Victorian woman that’s so central.

The great scene where Rochester forces Jane’s explosive requital is heart-stopping. You blink at this just as you marvel at the distance gender as well as position allows Rochester to behave as he does. Worrall and Hayes are riveting here.

There’s fire to go through, twice. If the fire along boards is spectacular enough wait for the set piece. And wait too for Bertha, here all along as Melanie Marshall sings the blues and so much else including hauntingly ‘Mad About the Boy’. Menacing she’s meant to be; but an elegiac blue singer is of course the soul of something not even guessed at unless it be by Jean Rhys in her great prequel novel The Wide Sargasso Sea. Marshall with her sovereign voice transforms the heart of absence that’s Bertha, making it central, almost absolving.

Simone Saunders’s affectionate maid Bessie, imperious Blanche Ingram and Diana Rivers commenting encouragingly over spectacles mark feminine models Eyre rejects.

Elphinstone’s memorable Helen Burns and St John Rivers mark pietistic stages in Eyre’s life, ending with St John’s rigid visionary wanting Eyre as his helpmeet.

It’s at this accelerated telling we find unaccountable cuts. On her last trip to Mr Reed Eyre learns of how she’s been cheated of an inheritance. Her sojurn at the Rivers’ encompasses two omissions: their discovery of close kinship, and of course that missing inheritance that sets up the denouement.

Adding these renders sense to that last visit and much else, the shaping of providence that this version allows St John Rivers to declaim so ringingly. Does it seem too much? It doesn’t usually, and it’s the single omission I regret in what’s an extraordinary exhaustive ultimately incandescent – in all senses – version of this classic. And that swirl of cloth is back, returning us to that little scrap at the start. And did I mention physical theatre…

Some mightn’t like this bare-board, smokily-lit production, and schoolchildren have responded differently. It’s too epic – bare-boned perhaps – for some attention-spans, and lacks shafts of daylight. Certainly it’s one revelling in a live audience’s immersion. But it’s rawly theatrical, sharply-focused in a way not always caught from even the Lyttelton stalls or on tour. And it’s still outstanding; small caveats aside, you’ll never see a better adaptation of this classic.