Theatre Review: Jane Eyre @ Bristol Old Vic
by Abi Hack
A contemporary twist on an old classic, the collaborative efforts of the Bristol Old Vic and the National Theatre resulted in a fast-paced and incredibly accessible take on Charlotte Bronte’s well-known novel: Jane Eyre.
Instantly captivated by the industrial-esque set that dominated the stage, talented set designer, Michael Vale, used a mixture of wood and metal to create a multi-platformed “jungle-gym,” which the actors and musicians cleverly interacted with throughout the production. As the narrative unravelled, the set itself became an integral part of the performance. It was injected with a form of “life” that subtly emerged as the actors clambered, walked, and ran across its chunky yet simplistic frame. The material entity was transformed before the audience’s eyes, as the wooden slats, metal ladders and ramp fluidly transitioned from the intensity of Gateshead Hall, to the oppressive walls of Lowood Institution, to the mysterious and haunting floors of Thornfield Hall.
Director, Sally Cookson, made the bold (and overall successful) decision to have the band on the stage; visible to the audience throughout the production, and thus caught up in the action of the piece. The music itself comprised of quirky folk tunes, operatic melodies -- these were sung by Melanie Marshall (Bertha Mason) whose mesmerising voice lulled the audience into a trance-like state -- eerie electronica-style compositions and simple piano passages. My only criticism was on the decision to include Dinah Washington’s ‘Mad About the Boy’ and Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’, as this felt cliché and a stretched attempt to integrate “modern-day” songs into a contemporary piece.
Laura Elphinstone shone as Rochester’s ward, Adele, a bubbly French girl whose frantic and effervescent energy brought a delightful contrast to the more composed characters found within the play.
In contrast, the portrayal of Bertha Mason wasn’t quite as successful and left a sour taste in your mouth as you departed the theatre. The character was far too subdued and did not feel like a true embodiment of the character’s wild and animalistic nature. The “mad woman in the attic” was neither mad nor confined in any way, and was instead left to freely roam the stage. This would have worked had the revelation of Bertha Mason not been so dry and insignificant. The build up to this moment sent a tingle down my spine but I was left dissapointed as Bronte’s unleashing of Bertha consisted of Marshall standing in the centre of the upper platform and the lights briefly changing to a vibrant red.
‘You improvise the sense of the scenes and Sally always works very physically, so it’s far removed from the conventional “You stand there, I’ll stand there”. She gives her actors and musicians full range to respond instinctively, almost like dancers. I can only describe it as being like a sculptor with a big lump of clay. You take bits off, then you make a mistake and fill a bit in, and miraculously a form starts to emerge. It’s messy and risky and the sort of thing only subsidised theatre is brave enough to commission.’ -- Madeline Worrall
Madeleine Worrall made a mostly convincing attempt at portraying the emotional complexity of the narrative’s protagonist, Jane Eyre. Her interpretation of “young” Jane was overly dramatic for my liking, as it felt that the character was left little room to journey on the emotional arc that I believe is required for any adaptation of the character. Thus, when Jane verbally attacked Mrs Reed (Maggie Tagney) in an emotional outburst near the beginning of the play, the audience weren’t necessarily as shocked as they should have been by this revelation of Jane’s wilder self. The moment was left to float into a oblivion, something that would not have happened had Worrall only shown glimpses of the characters untamed nature prior to this interaction. However, this was soon recovered when Worrall’s physical transformation occurred (she changed from a loose fitting Lowood Institution uniform to a classic Victorian dress and tied back her free-flowing mane into a bun) and she became “governess” Jane at Thornfield Hall.
Jane’s counterpart, Mr Rochester, played by Felix Hayes, was surprisingly funny, and Hayes dispelled any belief that the traditionally stern-faced character cannot embody a brooding mystery and sharp wit.
Overall this was an incredibly accomplished rendition of a classic Victorian novel, one which if not treated with care, can otherwise result in a slow and tedious battle with a tale of epic proportions.