FringeReview UK 2017
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 quote out of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony Avalanche. Dominic Bilkey’s sound is as full as a moors storm.
Jane Eyre’s so imprinted on or 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 and 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 pain thunder. Bower’s music too slinks from Michael Nyman to thrash to a direct quote out of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony Avalanche scene at the point the Ingrams have arrived. Another lies in the physical use of percussion and cast members running on the spot to denote stage coaches. Musicians Matthew Churcher, Alex Heane, David Ridley fully deserve their line-up at the end, are indeed omnipresent. 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 Nadia Clifford who’s virtually never absent, furrowed and rebellious to the cruelty Lynda Rooke’s Mrs Reed, aunt by marriage foists on her. Rooke 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: Clifford 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 Hannah Bristow’s roles. Here her stoicism and gritty forgiveness contrasts deliciously with her wild excitable avatar as Adele, the spoilt French child Eyre later tutors, and again as Diana Rivers, another pious and bespectacled voice of calm.
There’s a jump-cut, no kind Miss Temple to intercede and gentle Eyre’s condition. Clifford’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. Clifford’s expression and lithe movements make su 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.
Enter Tim Delap’s bearded forwardly-hunched Rochester exploding expletives as Eyre’s figure unhorses him. It’s here Paul Mundell can throw off his grim schoolmaster or later Mason roles and delight in the physicality of Pilot, Rochester’s waggy dog – indeed Mundell holds a tail in his right hand and strategically flicks it, almost stealing the show just at the right point. Delap’s interactions with Mundell are one of those nodal moments of delight an calm that take this production into the realms of physical theatre, timeless and timely.
The chemistry between Delap and Clifford is managed with an edgy epic sense of two people grnarled by circumstance who, instantly attracted as they are, have so amny reasosn to dstrust themselves let alone each other. Delap conveys the abrupt electric intelligence fo Rochester, his dangerous simmering sense of how he’s wronging everyone, and Clifford’s quiety probing reluctant carapace giving way to one fo the most violent declarqaations 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. Clifford’s vehemence makes this believable. Delap’s is superb but it’s the breaking-out of a Victorian woman that’s so central.
Theres fire to go through, twice. If the fire along boards is specacular enough wait for the set piece. a/dn wait too for Bertha, here all along as Melanie Marshall sings the blues and so much else. 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 superb voice transforms the heart of absence that is Bertha, making it central, almost absolving.
Evelyn Miller’s affectionate maid Bessie, imperious Blanche Ingram and above all St John Rivers mark stages in Eyre’s life, ending with the rigid visionary who wants Eyre as his helpmeet, with Bristow’s Diana Rivers commenting encouragingly. It’s around two of Miler’s stages 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 exhausting 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… This is outstanding; you’ll never see a better adaptation of this classic.