It’s hard to depict real loneliness in literature. No matter how persuasive a novelist might be, the fact remains that a supposedly isolated heroine (or hero) will always be surrounded by an awful lot of words. Furthermore, she will always have us – the reader – for company.
But loneliness on stage can feel much starker and far more indisputable. Although the audience is physically close to the action, there’s nothing we can do to intervene. Isolation in the theatre, then, can be a uniquely terrible and powerful thing.
When I first read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre at school, I did not consider Jane a lonely girl. I thought her terribly worthy, really into books and – in all honesty – a little dull. But the Jane Eyre of Sally Cookson’s lucid production is utterly alone, and so much more impressive for this. Despite the love affair with Rochester, this Jane (played with a sort of fiery calm by Nadia Clifford) has only herself to rely on. When Jane gets in trouble, she does not turn to others. Instead, she turns to other versions of herself (embodied by identically-dressed actors). ‘We could all do with a bit more Jane,’ I find myself thinking with a jolt of admiration and a dash of guilt. At school, however, I thought only: ‘We could all do a little more Rochester.’
The moments of crisis in Cookson’s show arrive at breaking points in Jane’s identity; moments when Jane might, were she to falter, move away from the truest version of herself. This – we realise in the dark of the theatre – is what makes Jane such an enduring hero: she does not behave according to current customs, fashions or social mores. Here is a woman who listens only to herself.
This is also a Jane who is capable of real surprises; a woman who behaves boldly at every juncture in her life, but acts always with sincerity and conviction. When Jane is young and raw, she is basically an animal. She lashes out at her cousin and bites him – hard. She screams with unfettered rage when Mrs Reed locks her in the red room, and the white curtains that surround the stage (which remind us of the pages of a novel) turn a fiery red. Jane’s might be a limited world but it is one defined absolutely by the emotions she feels, and the moral impulses she decides to act on.
When Jane later becomes a governess, she stands atop Michael Vale’s wooden climbing frame set, cobbled together with metal ladders. A cluster of actors hold a series of frames in front of Jane’s face. At first these frames represent a larger mirror, and Jane stares fixedly at her reflection. How might she use her brains, Jane asks herself, to live the most honest version of her life? The frames are then re-calibrated into window frames, and Jane resolves to leave and pursue teaching. Decision made, the window bursts open: Jane has found freedom by looking deep inside her soul.
Jane’s liberty wavers throughout and is offset constantly by Bertha’s imprisonment. As Jane continues to forge her own path, Bertha prowls about in ever-decreasing circles. Every once in a while, Bertha – given glorious voice by Melanie Marshall – steps forward and sings. Marshall’s voice is exquisitely pure. The notes sound clean and clear but the songs themselves, many of which are haunting adaptations of contemporary classics, have an ugly edge. The songs get darker as Jane and Bertha’s stories intertwine. Bertha and Jane’s fates grow increasingly entangled and, as Jane and Rochester grow closer, it isn’t to herself that Jane must look – but to Bertha.
The bravery that Jane displays in the later scenes is nothing short of revolutionary. Given the chance to marry Rochester (played by the suitably romantic yet ridiculous Tim Delap), Jane chooses loyalty to Bertha, and all the women who might precede or follow her. There’s a brilliant scene on Jane’s wedding night, which turns out to be a deeply conflicted and messy affair. Jane stands on a platform above the stage, as a pretty white dress is lowered down from above. Jane’s signature blue dress is whipped away and her appearance transformed. It feels like a rare moment of self-betrayal and an amazingly (and depressingly) modern reminder of all that women still give up on their wedding day. Why is it that so many women dress up like someone else on the day they should look most like themselves – and what does that bode for the identities they hope to forge for the future?
So Jane makes a decision that most ‘empowered’ women today would still struggle with. Jane walks away from her wedding. She returns only when Rochester has been well and truly punished. But there is still time for one last song from Bertha, who hovers – dressed in bright red – at the edge of the stage: ‘I think you’re crazy. Just like me.’ Might well be, Bertha. Might well be.
Jane Eyre is on until 21 October 2017 at the National Theatre. Click here for more details.