Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury ★★★★½

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

For a novel that is widely and accurately regarded as one of English literature’s greatest, renowned for Charlotte Brontë’s expressive language, it is perhaps remarkable that the speechless world of ballet has produced such a faithful, striking adaptation of Jane Eyre.

But the story of Jane and her life, from before her time at Lowood School to her life at Thornfield where she meets the dark and enigmatic Mr Rochester, is dominated by passion, both repressed and released – perfect fodder for ballet. And so it is here, with Cathy Marston’s interpretation for Northern Ballet which is stirring, passionate and powerful throughout.

Patrick Kinmonth’s sets and costumes, all in a muted colour palette redolent of a fog-bound autumnal moor, express the Yorkshire landscape with a series of flats and drapes that remind one of charcoal sketches. In this world, Jane (played first by Antoinette Brooks-Daw and then, as an adult, by Dreda Blow) is challenged not only by the cruelty of others, from her cousins to the regime at the Lowood Institution, but by a corps de ballet representing her inner demons. These “D Men” are the most unconventional aspect of this adaptation, but their formations provide some insight into Jane’s personality, while also showcasing the ability of the Northern’s male dancers in a story which would otherwise be almost completely dominated by women.

An exception to that, of course, is the character of Mr Rochester himself. Younger and more strident here than on the page, Javier Torres is a charismatic figure. From his first interaction with Blow’s Jane, directing her around with the flick of an outstretched ankle as he reclines languidly on his throne-like chair, the chemistry and passion between the pair is electrifying, culminating in a luscious, romantic pas de deux in Act II as Rochester proposes to Jane.

The supporting roles help to flesh out the story, from Rachael Gillespie’s flightily wilful Adele, resisting control at every step but gradually falling into line as she finds a connection with her governess, to Jessica Morgan’s Grace Poole, the maidservant whose actions begin to indicate that all is not quite as it seems at Thornfield.

And it is, of course, the unruly Bertha Mason – Mr Rochester’s first wife, and the original “mad woman in the attic” that would inspire Du Maurier and others since – who is a very literal personification of repressed passion. Alastair West’s lighting designs provide evocative fire effects, but it is Victoria Sibson’s rampant Bertha that provides a colourful splash, a very different temperament in the second act that provides a great contrast to Blow’s contained passion as Jane.

Those who are not aware of the novel’s story may struggle with some of the narrative in places. Marston’s adaptation assumes a familiarity with the source material in ways that a play wth dialogue would not need. But as a beautiful expression of modern classical ballet, a faithful adaptation of a classic of literature, and a possible introduction to ballet for people attracted by the thought of seeing Brontë on stage, it’s hard to beat.

Photo: Guy Farrow