Sally Cookson’s two part production of Jane Eyre gets right into the grain of the character and the story, allowing Charlotte Bronte’s novel to gleam, albeit subtly. The point of Jane as a character is that she doesn’t glitter or shine. Devised by Cookson and the company – a cast of nine and creative team of fourteen – it’s presented across two full length productions which are not designed to work independently of each other. You’re supposed to watch part one, then spend the week looking forward to next instalment. Or even better, to luxuriate in an entire afternoon and evening spent inside the Old Vic. Time and its passing – and the pacing of the story – are crucial in Cookson’s telling.
This approach brings them beautifully, satisfyingly close to the novel. Part One begins with Jane’s birth and eases the audience slowly into the epic. It’s a bold start, introducing Madeleine Worrall as Jane as an unsteady then a headstrong child. As for any child, time passes slowly during Jane’s childhood in Gateshead and her years at Lowood School. It’s not a gripping beginning, but it sets the scene, gathering the company and audience together as at the beginning of a long journey. It’s a stylised show, full of theatrical, playful and inventive performances from a generous ensemble, the design clean and fresh, a rich live soundtrack fully embedded in the piece.
Conventions are developed to represent the passing of time. Exploration of Michael Vale’s simple yet ingenious set, with its series of wooden ramps, towers and ladders, is expansive, open and full of possibilities, and the way the cast use this space at various points conjures up the great imposing houses of the novel, the imposing school, the wilds of the heath – as well as Jane’s state of mind.
Benji Bower’s music is the heartbeat of the show, played by a four-person ensemble with a huge range of instruments, placed centre-stage. From original compositions to reworked versions of unlikely modern classics, the music is fundamental in building the world of Cookson’s Jane Eyre and offers pace to the story. Musically, there are times for reflection and repetition, and there are times of extreme emotion that form a lasting impression. Costume conventions also mark the passing of time. Each time a change takes place in Jane’s life, she is dressed by the ensemble in something slightly different. In general the wardrobe is muted and simple, so a small change makes all the difference.
The second part of Jane Eyre goes in a flash. I was utterly lost in the world of the story. Not transported to Thornfield Hall – still firmly here in the theatre – but caught up in the self-aware narrative weaving of the performance. Though the storytelling style and the physical and musical conventions are the same as in Part One, as the love story intensifies, so too does the pace and the atmosphere onstage. Madeleine Worrall’s Jane is determined, strong and quietly frantic at times. With three ensemble actors she discusses her inner thoughts in a subtle but effective construct that bridges the gap between the first-person narrative of the novel and this narrator-less performance.
Felix Hayes’ Rochester is abrupt, dry and intimidating, but amusing and vulnerable too. He’s an ambiguous character – you never know how he really feels about Jane, whether he’s telling the truth, or how opportunistic life has led him to be. His edge is softened by Craig Edwards’ energetic, brilliant personification of Pilot the dog. The treatment of Bertha, Rochester’s mentally ill wife, is perhaps the most modern interpretation of a character by Cookson and co. Locked in the attic, in this telling she is marked by her absence rather than the sinister presence she inhabits in the novel. Vocalist Melanie Marshall steps forward with her spine-tinglingly powerful and gentle voice to symbolise this haunted character at the most pivotal moments in the story, but the feeling is that since her heart and soul are lost, Bertha is not really there, not fully.
After a memorable and poignant climax, the storm settles and the show ends much as it began (all those hours ago), with another birth, as the next chapter of Jane’s life begins. Her soul can fly free thanks to this fresh, sensitive and deliciously ambitious production.