Reviewed by Laura Wragg
The novel, Jane Eyre, is famous throughout the world and a favourite of many who love Charlotte Bronte. Many portray Jane as a woman looking for love and happiness after a sad beginning to her life and some feel she is warrior for equal rights and giving women a voice. However, you portray Jane with her feisty, strong willed character, you cannot help but admire her tenacity to be who she wants to be and challenge those who stand in her way.
Certainly, there’s not a lot to stand in the way of your imagination when it comes to the set design here. A wonderfully sparse selection of wooden platforms and metal ladders unlike any production I’ve seen. Just as when reading the novel, you are left to imagine what you need to and project this on to the set. With thanks to Sally Cookson, director, and the help of Aideen Malone’s lighting and the live band centre stage, it works amazingly well.
As the actors arrive on stage your ears are pierced by the sound of baby cries and you begin to wonder how this play is going to unfold. The shouts of, “it’s a girl” echo around the theatre and we begin the scene at Gateshead Hall. Jane’s aunt-by-marriage is a selfish, cold-hearted woman who spoils her own three children and hates her niece. Mrs. Reed’s dislike of Jane increases when she begins to stand up for herself and rejects her aunt’s cruelty and oppression. Jane, played by Nadia Clifford, is sent to the red room as punishment and the audience is drawn in with her to the claustrophobic, frightening and harrowing experiences as she is locked away in there. Jane’s inner voices are continuously present throughout the play which help the audience to understand her confusion and mental processes of the world around her.
Jane finally gets the freedom she wants and is packed off to boarding school. Mr. Brocklehurst is the head of the boarding school for orphaned girls, Lowood Institute. Mr. Brocklehurst, played by Ben Cutler, intimidates the girls, keeps them half-starved, cold, and tells them that they’re going to hell for their sins. It’s here at Lowood that Jane meets her best friend Helen Burns, played by Hannah Bristow. Helen is intelligent, caring and devoted to her religious faith. She claims her flaws are her love of reading and getting lost in her books but Jane just believes her to be brilliant and so knowledgeable. Tragically for Jane, as the girl’s relationship blossoms and grows stronger, Helen becomes ill and dies. A scene even more tragic when you learn that Bronte’s younger sister, Maria, dies at a very young age.
You see Jane transform from a ten-year-old girl to a teacher at Lowood and, hearing history repeating itself as you see her teaching the new orphans who have joined the school, you begin to feel her claustrophobia again and the impulsive desire to escape. Jane advertises in the local newspaper and finds herself moving to Thornfield, home of Mr Edward Rochester, to become a governess to Adele.
Adele is a young French girl of ten years old and when Jane first meets her she is made aware that she has only been in England for a few months. It’s not clear whether Adele is actually Rochester’s daughter but he suggests she could be as he was sleeping with Céline (Adele’s mother) at the time Adele was conceived. Rochester felt ethically obligated to take care of Adele when her mother abandoned her so returned with her to England.
Jane spends months at Thornfield governing Adele before she finally meets Mr. Rochester properly. Upon meeting him they realise they have met before and something sparks between them. Mr Rochester, played by Tim Delap, is abrupt, a drinker, and you feel he’s always on the edge of violence. Despite that he likes to order people around you feel his passion and warmth and the relationship between he and Jane building as the scene’s go on. Jane’s heroism of saving Rochester’s life as a fire begins to burn around him as he sleeps throws her even further into his heart. Deep conversations are exchanged and Rochester demands Jane’s company in the evenings as he enjoys a drink. Jane continuously questions Grace Poole’s presence in the house as Jane believes her to be responsible for the fire, creepy happenings during the night and eerie laughter from the third floor. Poole is in fact a seamstress who works as a servant at Thornfield Hall, and is secretly the nursemaid and prison guard for the insane Bertha Mason, Rochester’s secret, insane wife.
Bertha Mason is played by Melanie Marshall and is a recurring presence through the play from the beginning to the end. As a professional singer, she has the audience completely captivated and experiencing a range of emotions with her range of emotional, breath taking and hair raising vocals. As she saunters around the stage in her red satin dress she comes in and out of the play and is seen as an observer of the story as it unfolds. The choice of music, which had some surprisingly modern numbers, were exceptionally delivered and drew the audience right into the scenes.
As we begin to have hope that Jane’s happiness and love for Mr Rochester will lead to their marriage, Jane is thrown into more heart ache as she learns of Bertha and her existence in the household. Feeling disillusioned Jane moves away and is taken in off the streets by St John Rivers (Sinjun). St. John is a man of the cloth and offers Jane a home and a teaching role for the local children. Rivers is set to become a missionary in India and he tries to convince Jane to marry him and go with him as his wife. Jane, still heartbroken and in love with Mr Rochester, takes all of her potency to turn Rivers down and head back to Thornfield Hall.
She arrives back to find Thornfield burnt to the ground and in complete ruins. Mrs Fairfax, the housekeeper at Thornfield who warmly welcomed Jane to Thornfield and provided a contrast to Jane’s cold Aunt at Gateshead, explains Bertha’s insanity and suicidal actions. As the scene moves on we learn that Mr Rochester is alive but has lost of an eye from the fire. The couple’s pure happiness when they are reunited and the play ends as it started with, “it’s a girl”, fills you with tears of joy, relief and astound for the outstanding performances and incredible score.
The actors were given a standing ovation which found them crying themselves and sharing tears of elation with the audience. This was a performance never to be forgotten and one that endorses that Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre will live in the hearts of many forever more.
Tickets cost from £15.90 to £41.40 (plus £2.85 transaction fee).
Jane Eyre is at the Theatre Royal in Brighton from 24-29 July 2017, for more information or to book tickets visit www.atgtickets.com/brighton or call the box office on 0844 871 7650.
Theatre Royal. New Road, Brighton, East Sussex, BN1 1SD | 0844 871 7650