In 2014, director Sally Cookson was given the green light by Bristol Old Vic Artistic Director Tom Morris to bring her epic version of Jane Eyre to this beautiful theatre. Unlike anything I had seen before, this show was a two-part version that took place over consecutive nights. I got myself a ticket for both these performances based on the fantastic reviews the show received, and I was not disappointed. When I heard that the show was returning to the Old Vic as part of the theatre’s 250th anniversary year celebrations, I couldn’t wait to see it again. The show has been condensed into a single part on one night, and I was keen to see if it was as powerful in a shorter, more distilled burst!
Jane Eyre tells the story of a young girl who becomes an orphan at a tender age. She is rejected by her wealthy aunt and her cousins and sent away to school, destined for a life of servitude and poverty. Lots of you will know this story intimately, most of you will no doubt have heard of it. What I love about this adaptation is that the main focus is not so much on her love affair with Mr. Rochester, but is a rallying cry for feminism and equality. Jane seems to be a character not of her time and she absolutely refuses to have her spirit crushed. She passionately feels that she should not be beaten down just because she is a woman, she understands that in order to thrive she needs as much emotional, spiritual and intellectual stimulation as any man. At no time do the audience feel this more keenly that when her cry of ‘Unjust!’ reverberates around the auditorium, or when she hurls out the famous line “I am no bird, and no net ensnares me!”
The same cast return to The Old Vic for this updated version of Jane Eyre, which is great news as they are an incredibly strong crew. Madeleine Worrall plays our Jane to absolute perfection, moving from screaming newborn, through childhood to independent woman using just her acting skills and some subtle costume changes. I was most interested though in how different my response was to the character of Mr. Rochester in this one part show. In the two-part show, I didn’t much like him and couldn’t understand why such a strong woman would fall for this rude, gruff, belligerent man who offers much financially but little emotionally. In this show where there is no break in the action, I felt that the character of Mr. Rochester (played to equal perfection by Felix Hayes) was more deserving of a little of my empathy. Yes, he is still aggressive and downright obnoxious at times, but the action flows more smoothly without the 24-hour break, and his flaws seem easier to understand due to the terrible events that have befallen him. Much of his character is shaped by his self-hatred, but the love of Jane softens him just a little.
I felt that there was generally a better flow to the whole show overall having it on one night rather than split over two. The actors never let up the pace as they move seamlessly around the sparse staging. They use every inch of it and manage to convey a sense of place beautifully, even without many props and no backdrops. The music in this piece is superb, and central to the action. I have a sense that Jane is a character who belongs in more modern times, and the composer and musical director Benji Bowers seems to understand this, with a score and songs that are firmly rooted in modern times. Melanie Marshall is worthy of a mention as it is her fine voice that holds all the music together. The version of Crazy by Gnarls Barkley she sings becomes poignant and causes me to shed a little tear when juxtaposed with the action on stage. Dinah Washington’s “Mad About The Boy’” always fills me with melancholy and reminders of lost loves from my youth, but Marshall makes me feel that kind of pain afresh, as I empathise with Jane and her inability to be with the man she loves. Marshall’s character is ever present in her vibrant red dress at the moments of high emotion, a standout vision in contrast to the muted colours worn by the rest of the cast. The rest of the score is played live by a group of fine musicians who seem to blend seamlessly into the scenery but are somehow always present.
It is difficult for me to be tied down to which version of Jane Eyre I preferred. The story unfolds in more detail in the two-part version, and perhaps the actors were able to explore their parts in more depth given the longer running time. I think some parts of the story were slightly easier to follow in the two-parter, particularly if you are unfamiliar with the story as there was more time to explain things fully. However, I would have to say that this is my preferred version. Overall, it just felt more intense and vivid, and is perhaps more accessible than having to commit to two nights of theatre in a row. Jane Eyre is beautiful, moving and just as much of an epic when preformed over one night.
Jane Eyre is on at The Bristol Old Vic until the 6th of February, so there is plenty of time to catch it.
Review by Karen Blake