at the National Theatre
By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
With the same feeling I have when I stay up much too late reading a compelling novel, I realized at intermission, that I didn't want this show to end. This devised adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's iconic novel, Jane Eyre, is as thrilling and inventive as any show I've seen in recent years—and I'm no fan of devised theatre.
Created by the Bristol Old Vic Company, it follows the familiar narrative: an orphan girl, mistreated and misunderstood, suffers all manner of wretched 19th c. deprivations at the hands of her cruel aunt, the punitive schoolmaster, her smug holier-than-everybody cousin, but who never relinquishes her sense of self. One of the motifs running through the show is Jane's throwing open windows: Freedom! It is no accident that the show begins with her birth, "It's a girl" and ends with the birth of another baby, "It's a girl." Often interpreted as a catalogue of female fantasies, Jane Eyre looks, in this show's interpretation, like the first feminist novel. It is perfect that the act of putting on a corset is what marks her growing up from child to woman.
When Jane is hired as governess to Mr. Rochester's ward, she lives with mysterious goings-on at Thornfield Hall—mad laughter from the attic, beds set on fire, bizarre night hauntings. I won't spoil the complicated plot of deaths and heartbreaking love and cancelled weddings, but the show, like the novel, arrives at the same happy ending contained in its famous line, "Reader, I married him."
Despite all temptations to render the novel as a period piece or a costume drama, this sensational show uses only a platform and ramp built of raw wood (designed by Michael Vale), an austerity in stark contrast to the complex and tumultuous emotional life of the characters. The ensemble of The show's sound design and music is goose-bump making as well as gorgeous, as is Melanie Marshall's singing.
But it's the company of wildly talented, disciplined actors, under Sally Cookson's inventive and high-precision direction that makes this show dazzling. As Jane, Elly Condron amazes: her plain Jane face radiates silent suffering or wonder or grief or the firm intelligence that guides Jane through her life. She, like the rest of the cast—many of whom play multiple roles—is agile and endearing and passionate.
As Mr. Rochester, Felix Hayes smolders and stalks the stage with all the dark hero, deep-voiced Romanticism Bronte surely intended, while Craig Edwards plays, among others, Pilot, Rochester's trusty dog. Laura Elphinstone shines in all five of her roles, ranging from the dying Helen, to the gazelle-like Adele, to the strange Grace Poole and the smug, bullying missionary. Simone Saunders and Maggie Tagney round out the roster of characters.
The creative stamina of the cast never flags: when the stage bursts into flames as Thornfield Hall burns down, it is as though the passion of the characters and the passion of the production have visibly ignited.