If you took English Literature at school, chances are you will have read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Almost 170 years after it was originally published, the National Theatre’s retelling of this well-loved story is modern, profound and unashamedly inventive.
The story opens as Jane is born and her tragic beginnings are quickly established with the death of her parents and kindly uncle. Abandoned at her Aunt Reed’s house, she grows up ostracised and mistreated. She develops a strong sense of injustice (done to herself and others), and a feisty disposition that runs through the ensuing narrative.
We follow Jane from the family home (with its terrifying ‘Red Room’), to the Lowood Institution, a charity school for abandoned girls. For all the trouble she has adapting to the sterile environment of Lowood, she becomes a teacher and lives there until the need to make her way in the world grabs her again and she heads to Thornfield Hall as a governess.
It’s a pared down cast, with only 10 actors that each play multiple parts – with the exception of Madeleine Worrall’s plucky Jane. Laura Elphinstone is brilliant as Jane’s school friend Helen Burns and the wonderfully silly Adèle (Mr Rochester’s ward). She and Craig Edwards (who plays Pilot the dog) bring some much-needed hilarity to the largely Gothic mood and the development of Jane and Rochester’s intense relationship. Rochester is played by Felix Hayes who does an excellent job of being terrifying and oddly alluring at the same time.
The deconstructed set twists around staggered platforms and ladders that the cast nimbly dash up and down, and music plays an important role in the telling of Jane’s tale. The on-stage jazz band moves the plot on with its melodic interludes and sound effects (the suggestion of a horse-drawn carriage is particular is very well done), and Mr Rochester’s mad wife in the attic is brought to life by singer Melanie Marshall. Bertha is largely detached from the rest of the characters – as in the book, she exists as a figure lurking in the shadows – yet her songs enhance the drama. The stripped-back covers of ‘Mad About the Boy’ by Dinah Washington and Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ in particular are impeccably timed and spine-tingling atmospheric.
The play was originally a two-part production written by Sally Cookson for the Bristol Old Vic, where it received rave reviews. This praise has continued for the National Theatre’s version – a combined three-and-a-half hour copy of the original. It may sound long, but it’s just bloody brilliant.
As those who have read the book will remember, it’s not a wholly happy ending, but told so beautifully, it’s a fitting tribute to this classic. The bad news? It’s only on until 10 January, so you’ll have to hurry if you want to go. Tickets from the National Theatre are from £30