An evening with Jane Eyre is like catching up over a cuppa with an old friend.
Many of us know her back story, whether it be an enforced knowledge at school or through the sheer joy of poring over Brontë’s prose.
We’ve felt empathy towards the orphan’s plight at Lowood, cried at the death of Jane’s one true friend Helen Burns, admired her strong will in the face of whatever life throws at her, cheered at her first embrace with Rochester and felt her heartbreak when her wedding day turns to tatters.
It’s a bold move to breathe new life into such a dear, spirited friend. But if there’s anyone up to the task of adapting this most classic of Victorian novels it’s the combination of theatrical heavyweights The National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic.
We’re transported into our heroine’s world with a sparse, yet beautifully-stylised set comprised of ladders, wooden platforms and metal frames which provides a blank canvas for the settings of Gateshead Hall, Lowood Institution, Thornfield Hall and Moor House.
At first it appears like a humble piece of scaffolding, but clever, imaginative use of lighting, suspended props and, of course, flames, soon conjurs the locations we’ve visited so often in our imaginations. As there’s no grand sets that depict the locations, it means a greater use of physical acting is required, with actors becoming walls and even carriages under the inventive direction of Sally Cookson.
The eponymous role is played with great passion by the diminutive Nadia Clifford. But though she be but little, she is fierce as we see her transform from a defiant 10-year-old into a determined woman.
In a play that spans more than three hours, it’s a demanding title role but Clifford commands your attention throughout with her bold West Yorkshire lilt.
The Rochester to her Jane is played by Tim Delap who imbues him with a suitably brooding presence as we watch their intellectual sparring turn to love.
But there’s an even more brooding presence lurking in the background, that of his wife Bertha Mason played by Melanie Marshall. This imagining of literature’s most famous mad woman in the attic is one that weaves the narrative together with songs, whether it be a beautifully soulful Mad About The Boy or a slowed-down lamentful Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy which, though on paper would be out of place in a Victorian setting, actually works to great effect.
Other theatrical interpretations did jar, however, such as the role of Pilot being played by one of the actors. Though Paul Mundell certainly pulled off the canine role well, a man being a dog was a little distracting. I had expected Rochester’s four-legged friend to be portrayed through puppetry perhaps, as in National Theatre stable mate War Horse.
Then there was the omission of the novel’s most famous line “Reader, I married him.” It was like Dirty Dancing with no ‘baby in the corner’. No breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience, as literary Jane did. I waited for it, but it never came.
But maybe that’s the point: much like Jane herself, this production was anything but predictable.