Photo from National Theatre.
Last weekend I went to see Jane Eyre at the National; with my ever-insightful long-time theatre partner – my mother.
I’ve read Jane Eyre three or four times in my life; I’m quite familiar with the story, and yet the production teased out themes and elements to the novel that I hadn’t lingered on before. Themes around the meaning of freedom; and some interesting dramatisation of the inner mind’s workings. My mother came out in the interval saying that she was slightly disappointed; the play was admirably narrating the story, but it wasn’t doing anything new with it. It’s a fair criticism – but she’s more of a scholar than I am. I loved it, and would wholeheartedly recommend.
I always seem to be raving about the set, in National Theatre productions – this is predictably exquisite. Set in the Lyttelton rather than the larger Olivier, we have a stripped back collection of wooden beams, levels and ladders, which join together to create a kind of playground for the actors. Throughout almost every scene, people are moving. The different levels and ladders create such an tangible sense of space – for creating the impressions of the huge mansions of Gateshead Hill (where she lived with the Reeds) and Thornfield Hall (where she meets Mr Rochester) it’s truly impressive. Jane runs up the ramp to the higher level of wood beams; she leans over the ladder and suddenly she’s at the top of a hallway, looking down through a spiral staircase. She climbs down the ladder and is now in the kitchen; sliding through the wooden beams and swinging playfully on a metal bar. The ramp is a promenade, then a bed, then a corridor up to the attic. It is so simple, and so stripped back – it really only needs the lightest inflection of the actors, and the most insignificant prop – to become anything at all.
It is also beautifully versatile for exploring the psychological element of the drama. This is wholly Jane’s story; everything is her voice and her perspective. The scene where she fights with Mr Rochester – minutes before he proposes – and insists on her significance; that her feelings are of equivalent value to his, and that she and her personal freedom are of worth. It’s a passionate mix of running forward to him and backwards; both loving him and rejecting the ideals that she thinks he espouses. She runs forwards to him; then backwards up the ramp – he chases her and she eludes him. He climbs down as if to back away, then climbs the ladder up to her. He proposes, she accepts – and they kiss. Him, still on the ladder, her still leaning down. It is Romeo and Juliet, and everything of romantic tropes – and it is incandescently wonderful.
The hallmark of this production, for me, is the utter triumph of the minimalist set.
The performance has a strong and frequent live music component, which works excellently to garner a mood and explore subtext. There is a keyboard, a drum set, and a startling number of other instruments which are pulled out as required – an accordion being the most unusual. One of the most interesting things about the set is that all these instruments are placed in the middle of the stage. They are literally the central pieces, with the obstacle course of ladders and beams cascaded around. It naturally draws focus to the music. The musicians double as actors – during the Lowood School period of the story, they’re all deployed to create an impression of swathes of children all gathered in one place.
The music is used to recall themes – such as Jane’s country roots, and set a mood – such as distressed passion. The songs are a large part of the live music component, most sung by Melanie Marshall. She ostensibly plays Bertha Rochester, but she’s never naturalistic as the other actors – even the scene where Jane meets her, the one scene where her character is visible – she sings to Jane, in a stylised haunting manner. Marshall’s voice is something extraordinary. I’m aware that she has a microphone which amplifies, but there’s something so deeply mesmeric about her tones. She has incredible range and control of her voice. This is a singer that can make you feel.
She sings mainly songs reminiscent of old country, which match Jane’s feelings and moods. For instance, feelings of loss and wildness when leaving Thornton, and of childhood desperation during her time with the Reeds family. She also veers into contemporary – whilst Jane mourns her seeming unrequited love of Rochester, Marshall sings her subtext, ‘Mad About the Boy’. It wouldn’t have worked with any other singer, this bizarre song choice which grates with the rest of the song choices and ostensibly makes light of Jane’s romantic upheaval. Marshall’s talent is such that she makes the song serious, sad and longing. In a strong performance of many admirable actors, Marshall is something special.
Oh, the cast. Everyone is excellent of course, but it’s the way that they work together that is particularly interesting. They move as one – it’s rare that they’re either not on stage, or doing nothing at all. Even the moments where it’s just Jane, the rest of the cast are deployed in extending and enhancing the undertones of Jane’s thoughts and feelings. For instance – when she tries on her wedding dress, and turns in the ‘mirror’ (fourth wall) to see how it looks; the cast moves behind her, mimicking the movements. It sometimes doesn’t work all that well – in that instance, for instance, the stage just looks cluttered.
Other moments it’s wonderful. To create a gothic & expansive feel to Thornfield Hall, the cast cluster in the darkened stage with lanterns, provoking an eerie feel which fits with a house as cavernous and creepy as Thornfileld. The cast is regularly used, too, to more obviously explore Jane’s state of mind. The most powerful use of this for me is when Jane sees Blanche Ingram, and hears of Rochester’s attraction to her. The cast members crowd around her, mocking her for her love and audacity in thinking that it could ever be requited. It’s a powerful visual on self-doubt and self-hatred, and it worked spectacularly to convey Jane’s emotional distress.
Coming of Age – Clothing
Clothing was a big theme in this production. One of my favourite moments was Jane’s transformation from Lowood student to teacher. She wears a white shift for her childhood; at the time of transition she walks up a ramp, where another cast members puts a bodice on her. She walks further up, and another cast member helps her into a dress. Another ties back her hair. Thus – Jane the teacher is born.
That was a beautiful moment, and one which I get – this was Jane becoming a woman, and the clothing changes was an interesting and concise way to show the passing of time. Clothing continued to be a theme, though, and I don’t think that this worked as successfully as it did for Jane’s growth into a woman.
For starters – Lowood. I appreciate that they want to create the idea that there are many children there, all dressed identically in dull smocks, but why suspend such clothing from the ceiling? It looked very peculiar to me, and slightly distracted.
Jane’s wedding dress was another significant moment, but one which I don’t think worked all that well. She’s preparing for her wedding, and a coat hanger is dropped serenely from the rafters. The cast around her helps her out of her dress, and hangs it on the rail. Another dress falls from the rafters, which turns out to be her wedding dress. She (mimicked by the cast) turns her head from side to side, looking at both dresses in turn. It’s stylistic rather than naturalistic; they’re making a point about how her status is changing, and how she’s growing. I understand it, but found it clumsy and rather obvious.
Feminism & Freedom
Feminism and freedom are probably the largest themes in the production. The play starts with Jane’s beginnings; her mother cradling a baby and saying ‘it’s a girl’. The rest of the cast follows suit, repeating ‘it’s a girl’ in generally unenthusiastic tones. Throughout the play, Jane is battling for her worth. First with her cousin and the Reed family, then in Lowood against the hypocritical Mr Brocklehurst, with Mr Rochester and her right to leave Thornfield – finally with St John Rivers, where he would only take her as a missionary if she would go in the role of his wife. Jane knows her value, and that it is irrelevant to her status as a woman and as a member of the working class. The play ends with Jane and Mr Rochester’s baby – the cast repeats the same words as at the beginning, ‘It’s a girl’. This time, there’s more joy in the statement. There’s the impression that things are moving forwards; that Jane in her persistence and refusal to compromise herself is changing things for woman. At the very least, within her own family.
Freedom goes hand in hand with feminism – she asserts her right to freedom as a human being, and rejects the idea that as a woman she is limited in this way. There’s a recurring and rather lovely motif of windows; she looks out them at Lowood when the scene is paused for her gazing (another cast member holds up a frame to symbolise the window). On arriving at Thornfield Hall, she mimes bursting open the French windows, and loses herself in a rhapsody at her freedom. It’s touching, and not over-used.
It was a great production, undoubtedly – and a worthy retelling of such a notable story.
- It was far too startlingly delightful to hear a northern voice as the protagonist.
- The dog. Complete scene-stealer.
- Was the Reed family northern in the novel?
- When Thornfield Hall burned down, there’s real fire on stage. That was quite cool.
- The play completely cut out Jane’s family leaving her money. It worked; but they left in Mrs Reed saying that Jane’s family had tried to get in touch with her. So we’re left with the unresolved thread of what would have happened if Jane’s family had been able to reach her.
- Evelyn Miller (female) plays a male St John perfectly. Masterful performance.