First presented in two parts in Bristol, this version now playing at the National Theatre has been reduced to a more manageable three and a quarter hours (including interval) in which to tell the story of Jane Eyre from birth to happy ending. Topping and tailing the main story with the words ‘It’s a girl!’ makes this a strictly feminist reading of the novel on the surface, although the focus remains on the love story between the plain and insignificant Jane and her employer, the troubled Mr Rochester.
Playing Jane from childhood onwards, Madeleine Worrall is absolutely excellent, a wild haired dervish of a troubled girl whether crying out ‘unjust’ to her life, running on the spot to represent the journeys between Mrs Reed’s home and Lowood Institution, Lowood and Thornfield Hall, and climbing ladders within the set of wood and metal to show passages of place and time. Rochester (Felix Hayes) does not overdo the bluster or sharpness of his role, instead finding a connection with his new governess and an opportunity to escape his desperate situation.
Craig Edwards has three roles – Mr Brocklehurst, Rochester’s dog Pilot, and Mason (brother to the shadowy Bertha Mason, who appears now and then in the person of Melanie Marshall’s singer who interjects ‘Mad About The Boy’ and ‘Crazy’ – the Gnarls Barkley one, not the Patsy Cline one – into proceedings), and he works hard, especially in the comic role of the faithful pet.
Other performers who deserve to be mentioned are Laura Elphinstone (Helen Burns, Adele, and a particularly sanctimonious St John Rivers), and Maggie Tierney (Mrs Reed and Mrs Fairfax), but the whole ensemble come together in a beautifully choreographed set of scenes, perfectly timed and probably testament to a long period of gestation and rehearsal.
Set pieces, too, work well in places – the cavernous grave which swallows Jane’s parents, her Uncle Reed, and Helen in quick succession as they leave her life, her Aunt Reed’s promise to bring up her baby niece as one of the family and then shaking the baby bundle with distain into the plain dress in which the young Jane is garbed, little more than a servant.
I do feel, however, that Sally Cookson’s production assumes a prior knowledge of the story that many audiences might not have, and that there are some bad decisions, including the aforementioned Bertha, who is too smooth and measured to represent a mad woman who burns, stabs and bites. The one thing that made me cringe was Rochester’s descent from his horse in a flurry of f- words, which was unnecessary: this man is no gentleman and not worthy of Jane. The book’s Rochester may have a certain brusqueness of tone but he would be unlikely to swear in the company of a woman; even that other Gothic hero, Heathcliff, never did that.
A Jane which perhaps fails to fully gel, could do with being cropped by around half an hour, but which nevertheless remains true to its source and its heroine, and ends up being effective and moving despite itself.