Almost ten years after its premiere at the Young Vic in 1997, Polly Teale’s Shared Experience production of Jane Eyre returns to London at the Trafalgar Studios – that uncomfortable arena erected in the shamefully desecrated art nouveau Whitehall Theatre – and gathers force the longer it goes on.
And it does, I’m afraid, go on for rather a long time. Three hours of writhing and plangent cello music is about two and a half hours more than I can usually tolerate, but the performance is so strong, and the high points of Teale’s directing so vivid, that I must concede the show a victory on points, if not a knock-out.
The Trafalgar management must be hoping that Charlotte Bronte’s ever popular novel will draw the crowds for the summer, and two of the original cast, Monica Dolan as the penniless orphan Jane and James Clyde as the Byronic, dastardly Mr Rochester, return with renewed confidence to roles which offer them as much technical scope as emotional challenge.
The main theatrical innovation is the suggestion that Rochester’s mad first wife is a symbol of Jane’s suppressed eroticism. Thus Dolan’s grim, hatchet-faced exterior is twinned from the beginning – somewhat confusingly – with Myriam Acharki’s wild-haired Bertha in her flame orange taffeta dress doing some performance art on an upper level.
Neil Warmington’s design of a curved staircase leading to the secret door expresses the idea perfectly, and the conventional treatment of the rest of the narrative feels like a duty to be dealt with rather than part of the central thrust. There is not much feeling of local atmosphere in the episodes with Rochester’s illegitimate daughter Adele (Octavia Walters), or the chance encounter with the vicar’s sisters who turn out to be Jane’s cousins, and her salvation on the moors.
But the evening bursts into sensuous life with an interjected idyll in Jamaica that is like the volatile awayday to Havana in Guys and Dolls, and the catastrophe of the fire is ingeniously done by the six multi-tasking actors who flutter handkerchiefs like ashen remnants. John Lightbody, Sarah Ball and Joan Blackham all make significant, and versatile, contributions. The reunion of Jane and the incapacitated, redeemed Rochester is as moving as the convent scene in Cyrano de Bergerac.
The feminist deconstruction of the Brontes has long been an academic hobby, and Teale has extended the campaign into the theatre with notable dedication. Since Jane Eyre, she has won an Evening Standard best director award for her staging of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargossa Sea, a prequel to Jane Eyre that Shared Experience re-worked as After Mrs Rochester, and last year’s Bronte took on the entire literary sisterhood, and brother Branwell.
Fans of the show will need no second bidding, and lovers of the book will find plenty to challenge their own interpretation of a mythical romance that never palls.