Despite the violence and passion of the original text, adaptations of Jane Eyre can often get trapped behind dedication to recreating the costume and language of the period. By stripping the set of this touring Northern Ballet production to just screens of smoky grey and one or two chairs, leaving a wide open space to let the dancers roam free across the stage, Cathy Marston successfully unleashes the soul of a story that speaks without words.
The ballet opens with a scene from the middle of the book. Jane (Abigail Prudames) is struggling across the moors, having run away from Rochester, where she is rescued by Reverend St John Rivers and his sisters. This is a successful adaptation method also used in the 2011 film by Cary Joji Fukunaga and hurls us straight into Jane’s story without any delay.
Ayami Miyata is beautifully emotive and stubborn as the Young Jane as she survives Lowood Institution, a school based on Charlotte Brontë’s own. These scenes are psychologically chilling, without any need for an excess of set or macabre instruments. Marston provokes shivers with lighting, music and choreography alone and the show is more powerful for that. Young Jane’s candlelit pas de deux with the ill-fated Helen (Miki Akuta) is tragically beautiful and both of these young dancers are incredibly emotive.
It is generally agreed now (and even Charlotte Brontë wrote of misgivings about how she had portrayed her) that Bertha Mason got some bad press in the novel. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys went a long way to undo the caricature of the “mad woman in the attic” and our attitudes to mental illness have drastically changed since the 1840s. However, this Bertha Mason (played by Hannah Bateman) does not reflect this enlightened view. She is first seen writhing like a demonic serpent behind a screen, before setting Rochester’s bed on fire in a love letter to suspenseful Hitchcockian cinematography. It is effective and she is terrifying. But there are no shades of empathy to her character and this leaves her scenes in classic gothic territory.
Every dancer in this production can act as well. Mrs Fairfax (Dominique Larose) and Adele Varens (Antoinette Brooks-Daw) bring much-needed comic relief in every scene they appear in and Mlindi Kulashe manages to take the place of my favourite Rochester portrayal yet. He appears cracking his whip and sprawling in a chair with typical arrogance, but also is utterly heart-wrenching in his pas de deux with Jane. Kulashe is extremely expressive with his body language and his magnetic energy is a perfect counterpart to the reserved yet passionate Jane.
The difference a live orchestra can make to a ballet is shocking. Philip Feeney’s score, a cascade of moody and beautiful violin and piano pieces, encourages complete immersion. Feeney has a history of writing scores for gothic pieces, Dracula and The Hunchback of Notre Dame among his repertoire for the company. His score here isn’t jarring or melodramatic, but rather a slow dark romance.
My biggest gripe with this production is the male Greek chorus that accompanies the adult Jane throughout her scenes. It is the main reason I couldn’t completely empathise with her, as with the book. She is never alone and, in a work that makes such a wonderful use of space and movement, this is a shame.
This is an exciting adaptation without gimmicks and the best ballet I have seen in a while. It stays true to the novel but it moving in its own right. In a nod to contemporary audiences, Jane walks away from Rochester at the end to stand in front of the audience. Despite the intensity of his love, her childhood at Lowood Institution and the various attempts to break her, she has not been swallowed by the beast.
Jane Eyre was at The Lowry, Manchester, until June 9th. For more details, click here.