Saturday, 11 April 2020

THEATRE REVIEW: Jane Eyre - National Theatre, London

After the success of last week’s NT Live At Home online broadcast with 209,000 households tuning in to see “One Man Two Guv'nors”, the anticipation was building for “Jane Eyre”. The whole concept is an effective way to keep people staying at home and for the theatre to make money through donations. The common suggestion going around of donating the cost of your theatre ticket for a show is a good idea and I advocate it.

Tonight’s broadcast of a recorded performance of the live 2015 production of “Jane Eyre” was a devised adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s novel of the same name. This was a co-production with Bristol Old Vic and was directed by Sally Cookson. The story remained set in the north of England in the first half of the nineteenth century, however it was brought to life through modern ways of devising theatre.

Jane Eyre’s story is one of adventure, growth, and female empowerment. As a page is turned to a new chapter, the company of actors ran in unison to the next place; a new point in time within the story. Enduring a punitive, strict, and horrible childhood, orphan Jane Eyre (Madeleine Worrall) grew up to be a liberal and independent woman at a time of now-archaic and patriarchal attitudes dictating the role of a wife and how women should live their lives. She felt like an outcast. Years later, things were looking up as Jane Eyre became a teacher and was then hired by Edward Rochester as a Governess. Edward Rochester (Felix Hayes), the brooding Lord in an enigmatic manor house, asked Jane Eyre to care for his young daughter Adele (Laura Elphinstone). How will the narrative play out between Eyre and Rochester?

Worrall was an excellent choice to play Eyre, as she naturally possessed the heroine’s personality traits. Her doe-like eyes and candid facial expressions exuded passion, zeal, and indomitable spirit. You will know what I mean if you noticed the way she held herself. Worrall’s focus was impressively on the mark for the three hour running time - the same can be said for the whole ensemble too. Hayes’ interpretation of Rochester highlighted the character’s ruminating thoughts and quick-tempered fiery manner. This made for compelling scenes between Eyre and Rochester. Having seen Hayes in another production recently, I still think he has one of the best stage speaking voices I’ve come across. The rest of the cast effortlessly multi-rolled and made the show run like clockwork especially in the transitions.

The company’s version of this classic story placed an emphasis on feminism, what is “unjust”, class and hierarchal division. The script was text-heavy but occasionally this was balanced out a little bit with storytelling movement sequences. Dan Canham often choreographed movement in unison representative of collective and societal suffering, but it also accentuated the thoughts and feelings running through Eyre’s mind. Personally, I think the stylised running on the spot motif with the ensemble huddled together didn’t look right. It was tidier when the motif returned with a change to the blocking and the actors were spread out right across the stage running on one spot. The symbolism of the running was a reminder of Eyre’s frequently life-changing and momentous journey. Another idea to use the ensemble for the purpose of thought-tracking Eyre’s inner monologue didn’t feel necessary. On a different point though, the exploration of physical characterisation worked tremendously, particularly in the cast’s portrayal of various characters of all ages and unique qualities.
Music was played by a small band on stage comprised of instruments such as guitar, piano, and violin. The style of some of the compositions resembled Minimalist music: the repetitive, quick-tempo notes lifted the pace, tension, and excitement within scenes. Furthermore, we heard a couple of anachronic and modern songs against the traditional and sacred music to great effect. Underlying themes in “Mad About The Boy” by Noel Coward and “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley married up with the activity in the plot at just the right moment. These songs were uniquely performed by the band and sung operatically. It was a great way of grabbing your attention and stirring your curiosity.

Watching the production with all the cameras close to the action meant we could get a good look at the set. It reminded of me something Kneehigh Theatre Company would make. Designed by Michael Vale, you had a rising wooden platform with stairs, ladders, and window frames. It didn’t look cold and unforgiving considering Eyre’s upbringing was in an orphan institution, it looked more like a playground for the children. Saying that, the aims of the design fitted nicely into the narrative later on in relation to Eyre’s continuously effortful journey and the visual acknowledgement of the “upstairs/downstairs” household hierarchal differences. The narrow trap door to underneath the stage definitely brought to mind the subthemes of death and loss. A playful motif with the window frames suitably captured Eyre’s brewing desire for social liberty and personal adventure.

In conclusion, this devised interpretation of “Jane Eyre” was weighted with text, however this was somewhat broken up with movement, music, and some play with props. The performances were superb and the production’s intentions were transparent. So much so, Eyre’s declarative statements such as: “I must have liberty, and if I can’t have that I must have change” struck a rousing chord. While the company haven’t done a massive amount to change things or innovate during the creative process, they have remained faithful to the original story, the words and universal themes within it. It was an intellectually stimulating and engaging production set against a 21st Century contextual backdrop.

“Jane Eyre” is available on National Theatre’s YouTube page now until Thursday 16th April. Watch it and donate, please

Reviewer - Sam Lowe
on - 9/4/20.

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