Review: Jane Eyre at the National theatre – laughter, anger, tears and joy

‘You must learn to control your passions!’ Bessie tells a distraught young Jane Eyre, as she cries over the unjust treatment by her Aunt Reed and cousins.

Two years ago, director Sally Cookson was given the go ahead to adapt Charlotte Bronte’s iconic novel, Jane Eyre, into a two-part play. After successfully running at the Bristol Old Vic, the two plays have been merged into one to create the play I saw at the National theatre, an adaption that even Charlotte Brontë herself would take her hat off to.

Cookson’s version of Jane Eyre is a study of identity, focusing on Jane’s personal development as a human being. The stage was made up an array of raised platforms and ladders, with characters running and climbing throughout the production. The stage itself seemingly echoes Jane’s (Madeleine Worrall) mentality and journey, the continuous movement reflecting Jane’s journey of coming into herself and learning, as Bessie warns her at the beginning of the play, to control her ‘passions’.

Madeleine Worrall (top) as Jane Eyre with Melanie Marshall as Bertha Mason (centre) and Laura Elphinstone as Adèle (right).
Madeleine Worrall (top) as Jane Eyre with Melanie Marshall as Bertha Mason (centre) and Laura Elphinstone as Adèle (right).

Bertha Mason, played by the fantastic Melanie Marshall, was a constant presence in the background of the play, singing effortlessly during musical interludes to express the feelings that Jane can’t seem to put into words. As Jane moves to Lowood, the highly religious girls school based on Bronte’s own education at Cowan Bridge School, these singing interludes begin to lessen. Jane has learnt to control herself yet still is in search of something more; the other actors huddle around Jane and ask continuous questions, echoing her inner frame of mind and restless mentality. It is only when Jane arrives at Thornfield and meets the angry and nostalgic Rochester (Felix Hayes) that Jane really starts to find herself. It is the first time Jane receives love, warmth, and the stage becomes alive because of it.

Adapting a well-loved novel of 170 years is not an easy task. Yet Cookson and her acting company have completely captured the true essence of this timeless story: a truly modern woman desperately searching for acceptance and love. Laughter, anger, tears and joy; this is undoubtedly a must see production.

Stasi Roe

Images courtesy of Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

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