Seeing Jane Eyre get the Shared Experience Theatre treatment at the New Ambassadors is akin to witnessing an old friend turn up in trendy new set of clothes. And a very welcome sight it is too - Charlotte Bronte's gothic romance has been ripe for a revamp for years.
The main change is that Polly Teale, the adaptor and director, has transformed the 1847 bodice-ripper into a stylish psychological drama. This explores the theory that Rochester's deranged wife Bertha is actually the manifestation of Jane's alter ego.
Thus, at the play's outset, Bertha appears entwined with the young orphan's body, miming the words she reads from her book. Later, when Jane/Bertha is incarcerated in the attic for attacking the Reed's spoilt son, Bertha remains to function - like Dorian Gray's portrait - as an outward expression of Jane's hidden torment and passion.
This is particularly noticeable when our eponymous heroine is a teacher at Lowood, but comes to a head when she becomes governess at Thornfield, and falls in and out of love with the older and socially more elevated Rochester.
The role of Bertha is a difficult one here, yet dreadlocked Harriette Ashcroft manages a convincingly certifiable performance whether hammering at the door or appearing to be in the throes of ecstasy. However, this isn't to belittle Penny Layden's own excellent portrayal of plain-looking, plain-spoken Jane. Layden colours her part with exaggerated, nervy body movements, a sharp contrast to the assured Byronic swagger of Sean Murray's Rochester.
The children's parts are all played by adults (Octavia Walters is a hilarious Adele), but perhaps the most eccentric piece of casting is that of Rochester's dog Pilot, played by the actor Michael Matus. Yet even this seems to follow a studied logic; in a previous scene we've just seen Matus portray the rabid, rottweiler-ish Mr Brocklehurst.
Neil Warmington's expressionist design reduces the three different locations to a blitzed shell of a Victorian building, with just the stairs, landing and attic intact. And Peter Salem's electronic cello music (performed onstage by Phillip Rham) deserves a mention for being creepily atmospheric.
There is much to enjoy here, even for regular Bronte fans, in this rendering of Jane Eyre. Teale has avoided the tried and trusted approach, and come up with a play that feels as contemporary as any of the new dramas that have recently graced the New Ambassadors' stage.
Note the following review dates from Jane Eyre's run at the Young Vic in October 1997.
“It wasn t as good as the book” is one of the most common criticisms of the many films based on famous novels. Books provide so much more time and space for exploring the nuances of the internal landscape and, for book-lovers at least, almost always triumph over the same story in celluloid.
The conversion of a story, especially one as complex as Charlotte Bronté s Jane Eyre, from page to stage is an even more daunting prospect. Along with film restrictions such as running time, the theatre presents its own limitations, particularly the size of the stage. However, with a good adaptation and clever direction, these obstacles can be surmounted.
Certainly, there is no better production company to take on such a task as Shared Experience who have cut their teeth on critically acclaimed adaptations of such literary classics as Anna Karenina, Mill on the Floss and War and Peace. This current production of Jane Eyre, adapted and directed by Polly Teale is another feather in their cap.
The play sticks to the basic narrative of the novel - orphan Jane leads a lonely, provincial life until experiencing brief happiness with her employer Mr Rochester before being cast out again into destitution because of Rochester s awful secret in the attic. But far from portraying Jane as a prim and victimised governess, this production mines the latent passion of the novel and exposes Jane as a fiery woman who tries desperately to quell her passionate nature - in the form of her alter-ego, the mad Bertha (Pooky Quesnel) - before accepting it and finding peace with Rochester.
Monica Dolan is excellent as Jane, struggling for control of her emotions, the set of her brow more powerful than Quesnel s simultaneous thrashing and inhuman ululating. Dolan outmaneuvers her romantic counterpart, James Clyde, who plays Rochester with more external affectation than internal anguish. His mannered method makes it difficult to discern the attraction between the two and why Jane must battle so with her emotions.
Nevertheless, the mood of the piece helps to gloss over the non-existent chemistry between the star-crossed lovers. Set against a swirling sky, Neil Warmington s spooky, charred staircase winds around the stage up to the prison attic where Bertha is hidden away in plain view. From the opening scene, the set presents us with a premonition waiting to be realised.
Terri Paddock, October 1997