Sally Cookson’s athletic production of Jane Eyre is a world away from the over-stuffed grandeur and crinolines of a BBC television adaptation.
It comes to London’s National Theatre as a co-production with the Bristol Old Vic who originally devised it to run in two parts over four hours.
Thankfully (because we’re sitting on the Lyttelton Theatre’s hard, unforgiving seats), it has been trimmed to one 190-minute story which is told at a rollicking speed.
Undoubtedly it could do with slowing down a bit. It is almost as exhausting for the audience, as it must be for the cast, to follow the highs and (predominantly lows) of Charlotte Brontë’s dark and tragic love story between Rochester and Jane.
But it impresses thanks to the inventive and pared down staging, plus the addition of a wonderfully atmospheric score, played live on stage by brothers Benji and Will Bowers, and Phil King.
No Victorian country homes for this production. The set is a giant wooden platform, on different levels, with ramps and ladders.
The cast, which I anticipate will be considerably fitter and lighter by the end of the run, spend their time racing up down and across the giant climbing frame.
But it works superbly well, being utilised as Jane’s first home, her nightmarish time as a child at Lowood school, and, later, Rochester’s shabby, though palatial, Thornfield Hall.
Over the space of no more than a few minutes we see Jane born, a mewling baby (fearlessly played by Madeleine Worrall); her father die; her relationship break down with her cold step-mother and the 10 -year-old bewildered child (yep, still Worrall) bundled off to an institution for orphans.
Phew! But, prologue over, we’re given time to watch young Jane grow up at the forbidding Lowood where her only friend is the consumptive Helen (one of a number of roles played with finesse by the sparkling Laura Elphinstone).
The real heart of the story comes when a grown-up Jane becomes a governess to a French-speaking child (Laura again), the ward of the broody and glowering Mr Rochester (Felix Hayes).
The haunted Rochester lives with a tragic past, in a vast country pile that echoes with secrets and mysteries. Will Jane uncover the truth?
There are standout performances from the entire ensemble, from Worrall’s bold and independent Jane, Hayes as Jane’s mischievous young brother and the taciturn anti-hero Rochester, and Craig Edwards, who not only plays Lowood’s sadistic headmaster but also gives a jolly convincing turn as Rochester’s faithful dog, Pilot.
The versatile Elphinstone, as a child, speeds through the set like a whirlwind, while later, also delivering a wholly plausible performance as a young male curate.
This haunting and sweeping melodrama loses none of its power and impact by being given a refreshing makeover. I was still left with a lump in my throat, stifling a quiet sob at Ms Worrall’s wonderful protagonist.
The enchanting Jane Eyre runs on the Lyttelton stage at the National Theatre until January 10. It will be screened as part of the NT Live initiative on December 8.
Sally Cookson serves up a refreshing & enchanting adaptation of Jane Eyre in a co-production from Bristol Old Vic which as transferred to London’s National Theatre.