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NT’s Jane Eyre

The National Theatre brings its striking staging of Jane Eyre to Sussex

‘Nice bit of decking’ –  my husband’s response to seeing the set for Jane Eyre at Brighton’s Theatre Royal this week was somewhat unorthodox, but then, so is this production.

Faced with the task of condensing this much-loved doorstop of a novel, which takes Jane from turbulent childhood into a no- less dramatic adulthood, the creators – a collaboration of the National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic – chose a stripped back set. Period furnishing is pretty much limited to Rochester’s armchair, the action instead taking place on and below platforms connected by a series of ladders. A simple curtained backdrop is dramatically lit at various points and there are real pyrotechnics.

I admired the fitness of Jane and the rest as they hauled themselves up and down the set over the course of three hours like they were fitting in a gym work out mid-dialogue.

The cast also multi-task, with mixed results. I’m well used to seeing adults play children, but baulked at a bearded man as a boy, then school girl. Paul Mundell as Rochester’s dog Pilot was adorably comic however. I also really admired how Jane’s strong inner dialogue had been kept by use, at times, of a chorus of voices surrounding her.

Jane herself, played from childhood up by Nadia Clifford is magnificently fiesty and it was so refreshing for the heroine to have a fitting Northern accent.

Hannah Bristow, centre, as Jane’s love rival Blanche

While the staging is modern, the era remains resolutely period, with 19th century costumes. One of my favourite moments in the play was the transition of Jane from schoolgirl to teacher via an onstage costume change, pieces of her outfit profered by different members of the cast.

There is a band on stage creating a great music background that really rachets up the tension. The musical highlight however are the songs from Melanie Marshall (who has appeared at Glyndebourne) as Bertha, an ever-watchful presence throughout Jane’s life.

Many sounded folkish but there’s a lovely version of Mad About the Boy as Jane falls for Rochester. I did feel however that Bertha had become so sympathetic through her beautiful soloist appearances that it was difficult to think of her as a dangerous menace by the time the biting and fire-starting ensues.

I’ve never seen Jane Eyre as primarily a love story myself and I’m glad the director chose to foreground the strong feminist streak in the book (that Charlotte Bronte got away with by writing under a man’s name). Wilful Jane in places all but bellows her needs for freedom and intellectual fulfilment. One noteable omission from the novel is Jane’s cringeworthy insistance, despite all her talk of self-worth, on calling Rochester ‘master’ even when they are betrothed.

Reader, she married him.

Some of the more lavish scenes are necessarily reduced. Blanche Ingram is an apparently solo house guest – there is no ball,   but most of the key elements are there and there were whole chunks of dialogue I recognised. I was only sad to lose Rochester’s fortune-telling trickery.

Opening night at Brighton was very well received, with whoops from the audience at the curtain call. If you can live without period settings, you’ll love this feisty, beautiful, at times, tongue-in-cheek take on Jane Eyre. It’s a daring production for a book that was daring in its day.

Jane Eyre is at the Theatre Royal Brighton until Saturday 29 July. Tickets are from £15.90 

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