Friday 25 September 2015

Non-review: Jane Eyre

The regular readers of this blog will both recall that I don't technically like to say what I've written is a review, if I didn't see the whole show. Full disclosure, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre was one of my A'Level English texts and I didn't like it then. So when an adaptation was announced at the National Theatre I was cautious, but booked anyway because the production - which originated in Bristol - had got good reviews and been praised as a revelatory take on the story. Director Sally Cookson and her cast have adapted and devised a highly physical telling of the story of Jane (Madeleine Worrall,) orphaned as a baby1 when her parents catch a fatal case of interpretative dance. She's sent to an uncle, who also promptly pops his clogs, and after the requisite Wicked Stepmother behaviour from her aunt (Maggie Tagney) and cousins, she's shipped off to a charity school for unwanted girls.

She does make a friend (Laura Elphinstone) there, but since she's got a nasty case of Period Drama Cough it's obvious that friendship won't last long either. Plagued by a false accusation of being a liar, as opposed to the entirely valid accusation of being SOME KIND OF ANGEL OF DEATH, she eventually becomes a teacher at the school.

Next up she goes off to work as governess for the ward of grumpy sociopath Mr Rochester. She falls in love with him for reasons that were never remotely apparent to me in the book2, but at least Felix Hayes gives him a gruff kind of charm here. Hayes had also played Jane's father in the split second before he carked it, and I thought that might be some kind of Oedipal commentary, but it's probably more down to the fact that, apart from the musicians, Hayes and Craig Edwards are the only male cast members.

Running around on Michael Vale's large IKEA set of steps and platforms, the cast play multiple roles without a huge amount of distinction in characterisation or costume - moments after Elphinstone's Helen Burns has walked down the Symbolic Trapdoor of Death she's back on stage as a different pupil. And the use of physical performance is relentlessly gimmicky - at one point Edwards waves his hand around a lamp like fluttering moths to no effect whatsoever, since the action is actually going on somewhere else. Jane is often serenaded with everything from folk songs to opera by a woman who will turn out to be Bertha, the mad wife in the attic (Melanie Marshall.) When a rival for Rochester's affections (Simone Saunders) arrives, Jane's disappointment is signaled by Marshall singing "Mad About the Boy" in an extraordinarily embarrassing moment of bathos.

Although it's over twenty years since I read the book, I did unfortunately have to read it more than once; not so Jan, who'd only seen a TV adaptation, and he said he had to rack his mind back to it a lot to figure out what was going on, as the staging isn't always clear on the story: It's a lot to fit in, even into a hefty running time like this, and the storytelling assumption sometimes seems to be that the audience knows the story as well as the cast, and they can speed past major events. After a while the only entertainment for me was noticing that the couple to my left had got a bad case of the giggles, a woman in the row in front was struggling to stay awake, and Jan had a look of sheer horror on his face. With the cast sheet threatening a three-and-a-half-hour run time, we cut our losses at the interval.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë in a version by Mike Akers, Benji Bower, Will Bower, Elly Condron, Sally Cookson, Craig Edwards, Laura Elphinstone, Felix Hayes, Richard Hurst, Phil King, Melanie Marshall, Simone Saunders, Jools Scott, Maggie Tagney, Joannah Tincey, Stevie Thompson, Ellena Vincent and Madeleine Worrall is booking in repertory until the 10th of January at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.

Running time: Advertised as 3 hours 30 minutes including interval.

1Worrall opens the show with the baby's cries; unfortunately this meant my first thought was "well, she's no Chris Lew Kum Hoi."

2I don't mind her marrying him because as an orphaned, penniless woman in the 19th century she has no other way of finding security; it's her insistence that it's twu wuv that always irritated me.

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