Sally Cookson’s Jane Eyre at Theatre Royal, Brighton

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.”

It’s raining outside and I am recovering from a late night with a cup of tea, thinking about the Brontës (not at all unusual for me.)

It feels like such a long time since I have been to the theatre. Caught in a lifestyle where attention spans are decidedly dwindling and television is becoming increasingly cinematic (the latter being, don’t get me wrong, great) I think I had forgotten the value of going to see live theatrical performances. I have been to the Royal before – once (I think) to see Matthew Bourne’s blitz-era Cinderella, and another time to see Rosamund Pike and Tim McInnery star in a stirring and resonant adaptation of Hedda Gabler. The Royal is not a large theatre, which means it’s intimate. Previously I have sat in the stalls and one of the circles, but my friend and I went for the gallery seating for this performance, which I highly recommend if you want to get to the theatre on a budget; the size of the Royal makes it possible to get a perfectly good view in the gallery, just make sure you’re fairly close to the middle of whichever row you have chosen without being right in the middle, where your view is likely to be restricted by bars.

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Above: The stage prior to the performance, as seen from Gallery row B. 

As seen, Ambassador’s production provides an innovative answer to the following question: how on earth does one adapt this doorstop of a Bildungsroman for the stage? At first glance, my feeling was that this was going to be a refreshingly minimalist adaptation in terms of staging, stripping the novel bare. Within the enclosing decor of the theatre, here was a set-up which was open and full of possibilities. I had watched the trailer for the production, but there were still parts of the staging I did not expect – for example, the band near the centre of the stage. It was interesting to see them incorporate music into the performance right in front of us, rather than behind the scenes.

To get to the play itself, then.

The band was indeed utilised in such an atmospheric way. As I watched the play, it made me question what kind of performance it was. It wasn’t a musical; the actors were not singing their lines. However, the band’s soundtrack ebbed and flowed with the story, singing relevant lyrics which aided in narrating. Most of the music and lyrics were folkloric in style, which I loved, because folklore is such an important part of the Brontës’  fiction. Combined with this was a spectacular opera singer who emerged at pivotal parts of Jane’s personal development, wearing a red dress. This was an effective continuation of the red room theme in the novel and a haunting reminder of Jane’s entrapment and suppressed rage, regardless of her changing locations and situations; the continual refrain of the ‘unjust’ which pervaded the play.

The red room itself is what I consider to be the heart of the novel, and something I was wondering how they would deal with; lighting and the use of invisible barriers were sufficient to portray this in the horrifying way it should be. Lighting was something I noticed made all the difference in this production, and I was impressed with the way they kept much of the staging the same and completely changed the mood with lighting, sound effects, and props and window frames suspended from the ceiling. The actors also interacted with the window frames, drawing attention to the theme of windows and thresholds Brontë fixates on, and the barriers Jane must break.

Delightfully wacky aspects of the play included the actors grouping together and jogging on the spot for carriage journeys (and even stopping for a pee break, something I have never seen paid attention to in the logistics of period drama), and one actor playing Rochester’s dog with what looked like a folded belt to use as his tail. Pleasant surprises were the use of two modern songs incorporated into the music: ‘Mad About the Boy’ and ‘Crazy’. I think any more than two modern songs would have been Luhrmann-esque and a little much for this type of production, but it was just enough to mix it up a bit and keep it refreshing and unpredictable.

I really cannot fault the acting. It was so interesting to see Jane’s rage brought to the surface in Worrall’s performance, rather than quietly boiling. Her exclamation, “I am no bird, and no net ensnares me” echoes in my mind. A brilliant Jane to say the least, and, certainly, one which rivals with other portrayals I have seen.

Some highlights for me:

  • The use of props, particularly the wedding veil Jane grudgingly accepts to make Rochester happy. In a nightmare sequence, the actors use wind machines to make the veil float and look like a spectre; entirely Gothic, and entirely beautiful. The veil is later shown torn in two by Grace Poole, later revealed to be the ‘madwoman in the attic’, Bertha Mason. I enjoyed the way they included the veil as a device to present the theme of veiling and unveiling in female Gothic tradition.
  • FIRE. THE USE OF FIRE. Perhaps I just love fire (why have I not yet been to see Rammstein, remind me?) It was used sparingly at shocking moments in the play; firstly, the first arson attempt, and secondly as Jane is called away from St John Rivers (“Sinjin”) and back to Thornfield, where a row of flames ignites behind Jane.
  • The way sound completely transformed the setting in each scene. The staging remains the same, but a simple use of reverb in the speech transported us from Thornfield to the church.
  • Obviously, the chemistry between Jane and Mr Rochester.

The only thing I didn’t like:

Throughout the play, I didn’t really feel the presence of Bertha Mason as much as I thought should be felt… I thought the singer was Bertha, but she was also one of the forms of narrator, and I don’t think Bertha’s violence would allow her to have a perfectly kept red dress. And it just wasn’t clear that she was Bertha. I feel that the haunting of Bertha is necessary for the darker part of Jane, and we keep expecting to eventually see Bertha in the play, but we don’t. They do draw parallels between Bertha and Jane (“Do you think I would hate you, if you were mad?”) but it seemed to me that they shied away from presenting the sad reality of Bertha herself.

This said, I thought it was a really innovative and inspiring take on the novel and one I certainly won’t forget.

★★★★☆

— Laura

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