Jane Eyre (National Theatre, Lyttelton)
A novel is more than its storyline. If you want a précis of Charlotte Bronte’s classic, get thee to Wikipedia. If you want character analysis, buy thee a SparkNotes. Sally Cookson and co’s devised version, condensed from its two-part incarnation at Bristol Old Vic last year, trades in feeling and mood and images: all the things that make theatre theatre. Their Jane Eyre is made of colour and music and light and bodies. You watch it with your skin. You think it with your stomach. You sense it. You feel it. You soak it in.
Michael Vale gives us a white curtained stage – an Appia space – that fills up with colour: red for confinement, cool blue for freedom. Cookson picks up that pattern: locked in the Red Room as a child, scolded repeatedly at her school for orphans, and squeezed into her corset as a grown woman, Madeleine Worrall‘s Jane longs, always, to throw open the windows and breathe. "I must have liberty," she yells into the wind.
She’s forever running: on the spot, round the stage, always clambering over Vale’s timber climbing frame set in her old black boots – the one’s she’ll wear even on her wedding day. Life, you soon realise, is an obstacle course – not just for Jane, but for Felix Hayes‘s Mr Rochester as well, trapped as he is by his past indiscretions. Both haul themselves up ladders, exhaustedly. Only children and dogs – Laura Elphinstone‘s Adele and Craig Edwards‘ hilarious Pilot, beating a leather knot like a tail – scamper about freely.
Cookson taps into a deep, brooding, downbeat melancholy, brilliantly drawn out by Benji Bower‘s three-piece folk band. They fill the story with mournful, minor-key music, all sighing strings, wistful piano runs and itchy percussion. It’s knowing too: when Jane’s head starts swimming with her feelings for Rochester, Melanie Marshall launches into a woozy rendition of "Mad About The Boy" and, once you’ve finally clocked that she’s Bertha Mason, Rochester’s first wife, she delivers this straight-faced, slowed-down version of Gnarls Barkley’s "Crazy". This is no mad, wailing woman in the attic. Cookson insists absolutely on the dignity of the mentally ill.
In time, Thornfield Hall, with its assorted strays and misfits, comes to seem like a sanctuary: its many closed windows shutting the world out, but also keeping its inhabitants inside. Hayes sinks into his armchair, a whisky always in his hand, dog always at his feet by the fire, and he glowers and grumbles in this deep, barrel-aged voice.
Worrall, meanwhile, plays Jane as a mixture of toughness and timidity. She spends a lot of the show trembling, partly out of deference, but it’s more like she’s about to burst out of her skin. Her lips stay pinned together in this polite, acquiescent little smile – just – but you’d swear she wants to scream or cry or squeal with joy. It’s like, even in her own body, she’s trapped. There’s no doubting the book’s feminist credentials afterwards.
At three hours long, it’s a show that both takes its time and goes at a clip. Key plot points get whisked into the full sweep of the story, and, with Dan Canham‘s fluid movement direction, it’s almost like an extended montage. The iconic bedroom blaze, for example, gets as much stage time as Jane’s pacing back and forth in silence. Both are as integral as each other and that’s the secret to this thrilling and utterly theatrical adaptation – a corrective to anyone who ever thought the Brontes were boring.
Jane Eyre runs at the Lyttelton, National Theatre until 25 October