Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is one of the great works of English fiction. It is a powerful Gothic love story, told by Jane herself recalling her romantic encounters and her reflection and understanding of them ten years afterwards. Set on the wild and vast Yorkshire moors, the task of re-writing such a classic for the theatre is a huge challenge, and the attempt to then perform the play in a small Studio theatre of the Bristol Old Vic is even greater.
This adaptation, by Willis Hall, was first performed at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield in 1992. It retains much of the novel, and perhaps this is why the opening scenes appear very frenetic, with a whole host of characters, constant movement of cast and scenery, with the story moving very quickly through the years of Jane’s childhood and education until she becomes governess to Mr Rochester’s ward at Thornfield. At least, though, this brings us to strongest sections of the play - of Jane’s scenes with Mr Rochester.
Directed by Lucy Pitman-Wallace, the play is performed by the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School overseas students, who all tackle the task of (generally) haughty upper class English accents with great enthusiasm, but varying degrees of success.
The role of Jane is split between three young actresses, in turn: Anna Devoe, Stephanie Schmalzle and Natalie Pearce. Although each of them are admirable Jane’s, in splitting the role, it is much harder to see any transformation or development in the character or for the actors to stamp their mark on the role as a whole. The latter two perhaps are fortunate to have the more notable scenes with Rochester.
In addition, the narration, also Jane’s words, is undertaken by the remaining female ensemble, often splitting the lines between actors into short phrases. All-in-all, therefore, there is quite a bit of job-sharing within the production, which may prove easier for the actors, but personally I found more distracting, rather than enhancing, the emotion.
The strongest performance by far is Anthony Bowden’s Mr Rochester, both touching in his romantic scenes with Jane, and also despairing of his secret and past life, resulting in a character with whom the audience could have great sympathy. His presence on-stage out-shone the rest of cast, and added great quality to the production.
Jane Eyre runs until 26 June at the Bristol Old Vic Studio.