Jane Eyre, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury ★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Originally staged in two parts at Bristol Old Vic, Sally Cookson’s collaborative adaptation of Jane Eyre won acclaim in a single, three-hour form at the National Theatre. It is due to return to London in September, following this current tour which has now arrived in Aylesbury.

Jane Eyre is often presented as a Gothic romance, which of course it is; but it is also the shriek of a girl who is shaped by injustice, and who as a result grows into a strong, impassioned woman, a far remove from the characterisation of her as “poor, obscure, plain and little”.

Michael Vale’s set design, all metal ladders and multi-level pine surfaces within a curtained white box, is the exact opposite of a traditional period drama, and the perfect playground for an adaptation that expresses Brontë’s story in a form that includes music and mime. At times, though, the desire to use every inch of the byzantine levels results in characters running up and down ladders to little effect.

As Jane, Nadia Clifford progresses from young child to strong woman impressively, combining her steely strength with an obstinate streak and impassioned concern that always feel genuine. Tim Delap’s Rochester is similarly layered, initially gruff and aloof, but with his relationship with his dog, Pilot (played humorously in a scene-stealing performance by Paul Mundell) showing the compassion within.

The chapters of Jane’s life before her arrival at Thornfield, from the orphan’s housing with her cruel aunt and callous cousins to her schooling at Lowood and progression to teacher and governess, can seem as if being ticked off a list prior to the heroine’s first meeting with Rochester. It is a testament to Clifford, and the cast around her, that instead we see a progression from childhood to womanhood.

And a big part of that growth is the role of Bertha Mason, Rochester’s first wife and the original “mad woman in the attic”. Rather than being revealed at the end of the piece, Melanie Marshall’s Bertha is omnipresent, singing folk songs, contemporary pop numbers and arias that comment on and illuminate elements of Jane’s life. Recasting Bertha as an alter ego to Jane in this way removes some of the mystery surrounding events at Thornfield, to be sure, but it also grants the character a grace and tragedy that enriches the overall piece.

At a shade over three hours, Jane Eyre is one of the longer productions currently on tour in the UK. But it feels exquisitely paced, illuminating Charlotte Brontë’s tale in ways that feel fresh, vital and vivid.

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