Novels have never been so popular in the theatre. From Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, to George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 at London’s Almeida Theatre, and long-running favourites such as War Horse, the so-called “acted book” is a sure way to draw the crowds – but a hard thing to do well.
Sally Cookson’s vivid production of Jane Eyre at the Bristol Old Vic avoids the pitfalls – such as trying to dramatise what is inherently untheatrical – while staying faithful to Charlotte Brontë’s story. Told in two parts of roughly two hours each, it devotes time to Jane’s early, formative years where film versions have focused on her relationship with Rochester. We see how her cousins’ bullying and the punishing Christianity of her school foreshadow the trials of adult life – including Rochester’s overbearing love. Madeleine Worrall gives a powerful performance in the title role: she is convincing whether playing a bawling infant or a passionate lover.
The play was “devised” in the rehearsal room rather than scripted in the traditional sense, and the dialogue feels true to the novel yet stripped back. There are moments of no dialogue at all, when movement and music drive the story forward or pause it to suggest a character’s unspoken feelings.
Music underpins the production, with a grand piano, double bass, drum kit and countless other instruments on stage. Composer Benji Bower draws more on folk than classical traditions – eschewing television period drama tackiness – and even includes a haunting acoustic rendition of Gnarls Barkley’s pop hit “Crazy”.
Michael Vale’s set design is similarly pared back, consisting of a raised wooden platform and a series of ladders. Places are hinted at: the Reids’ stuffy house signified by a few suspended oil paintings and Jane’s school by coarse uniforms on hangers similarly floating above the action. Aideen Malone’s lighting is by turns restrained – only a faint glow denotes the hateful Red Room – and irresistibly beautiful, working a subtle magic with the music.
This is Jane Eyre reduced to its essentials then made into something new. The novel is written in the first person, and the act of telling her story becomes, for Jane, one of self-definition. Here there is no sense of Jane the author – nor should there be. Rather than being delivered via stilted monologues, her conflicting thoughts are voiced by three cast members crowding around her, playing out the tension between social constraints and personal fulfilment. Jane’s struggle to assert herself runs through the play, and simple window frames – thrown open, slammed shut – represent freedom and imprisonment.
I don’t remember Jane Eyre being a funny book. Yet in spite of the suppressed pain that dominates much of the story, Cookson’s production draws out an unexpected humour in Felix Hayes’ grumpy Rochester, the choreographed carriage rides and the happy-clappy music for St John Rivers, the clergyman whose marriage proposal must be one of the least romantic in literature.
Four hours of theatre – either in one day or over two – is certainly a commitment, but playgoers who take a risk on the bold, inventive production will find that it offers rich rewards.