This bold production of Jane Eyre, in the midst of a national run, is playing at Grand Opera House for one week only.
Jane Eyre by the National Theatre/ Bristol Old Vic
Grand Opera House, York
Till Sat May 27 @ 7.15pm; Wed and Sat matinee @ 2pm
This is a fitting venue: the soaring, operatic voice of Melanie Marshall (‘Bertha Mason’) is a Greek Chorus of one anguished and yet astute woman, commenting on all. Fittingly, Marshall has appeared in a version of Wide Sargasso Sea.
Indeed everything and everyone fits together as tightly as the set, a stark stage of platforms and ladders, a bold, muscular Ikea-esque design. Music and musicians are integrated within.
Sound, light and colours meld with action and actors to bring us a bristling of hands, trying to warm themselves over inadequate fire; a frightening blood-red room; the rosey dawn on majestic moors.
The actors move so fluidly through characters and costume I needed to re-read the programme at least twice to check that yes, the cast is only seven.
Haphazard nature of life
Nadia Clifford (‘Jane’) is one of the few to clearly play a single part, standing by at her own birth, growing from an impetuous and brave child, breathless in her defiance, to a strong young woman capable of walking away from bad situations, no matter the lure.
Tim Delap (‘Rochester’) also plays only one role, but is glimpsed, bristling beard and all, beneath a schoolgirl’s cap during scenes set in Lowood.
Indeed, the trading of parts whilst striding across or climbing up and down the set, with the musicians occasionally joining crowd scenes, adds to the air of ‘this could be anyone’.
The show’s opening moments, with people strolling, mingling, and perhaps sinking randomly into death illustrates the haphazard nature of life in a time when 100 per cent of autopsies showed evidence of tuberculosis: often healed in childhood, but which could return.
Virtually everyone carried the tinderbox of disease, waiting for bad luck, bad weather or compromised immune system to be set off. Typhus lurked in crowded conditions.
A freezing house or inadequate food could carry anyone away, even Charlotte Brontë’s own sisters.
In Charlotte’s time (and increasingly, again in our own), one was blamed, or certainly censured, for poverty, illness, and madness.
The wide range of musical styles (folk, opera, jazz) and the interchangeable cast enhance the sense of the global nature of poverty and poor opportunity, and even how disease and disorder can unravel the lives of the upper class.
The entire cast (of what seem like dozens) are standouts: from the wagging tail and leg stumping glee of dog Pilot, played by Paul Mundell, who also gives us an imperious Brocklehurst and shifty Mason; to the brittle hatreds of Mrs Reed, and warm generosities of Mrs Fairfax, both played by Lynda Rooke.
We do not doubt we see nearly 20 characters before us. When Evelyn Miller (Bessie, Blanche Ingram, a solicitor, St John) is on stage, we are unable to look away: she brings grace to even Blanche, and is part of the chorus of Jane’s conscience, her own past peopling her thoughts.
Hannah Bristow is saintly Helen Burns, rascally child Adele, mysterious Grace Poole, and Diana Rivers, moving easily among characters perhaps five decades apart in age.
The only mild failing is the robust sound which at one or two instances obscures an actor’s words: but at these times, the powerful cacophony illustrates the uproar on stage. I only minded because I want to catch every nuanced phrase!
This is an athletic production, a feminist reading of a feminist book, one that returns to the ‘coming of age’ aspect of a book originally subtitled ‘An Autobiography’.
The love story is just one part: Brontë, and director Sally Cookson, remind us that women had (have?) less power over their choices than men; imagination, bravery and education can save us; and that Jane speaks for us all when she states “I am a free human being!”
At the show I saw, Nadia Clifford wiped away a few tears as the cast gathered to bow. The story of finding one’s power, and maintaining this self-belief, is potent.
Please catch one of this week’s shows of Jane Eyre. The music is amazing: the production company could sell the soundtrack (hint, hint, Sally Cookson!). And the tale, inspiring.