Jane Eyre is at The Festival Theatre Edinburgh following a critically acclaimed season at the National Theatre. This production has been described as an “innovative re-imagining” of the timeless novel by Charlotte Bronte, and if ever words can strike fear into any reviewer then these are two of them as few productions live up to their claims of innovation or re-imagination. This production directed by Sally Cookson, who as artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic handled the original two part production, (this production is a distillation of the core elements of both) is an exception to that rule as it delivers exactly what it promises to do. This version of Jane Eyre breathes new life into the classic story and takes us firmly back to the original Jane that Charlotte Bronte imagined. This Jane Eyre is a free thinking young girl whom we watch developing into a young woman who, against the normal society restrictions of her day, wants to be treated equally with any man and recognises that her emotional, spiritual and personal development as an individual are hers by default as a living breathing human being.
Nadia Clifford is outstanding here as Jane Eyre, and somehow manages to get that essence of an independent and free thinking young girl and young woman to the stage. It is interesting to watch how with nothing more than body language and mannerisms (and a very tight script of course) Nadia Clifford morphs from a young orphan girl into the strong willed adult Jane, and it is largely due to her skill and stage presence that we as an audience believe so completely in this transformation.
For a story such as Jane Eyre (even stripped down as this production is to the essential characters), there is a lot to be told in a limited amount of time, and many of our cast play multiple parts. Taking on the largest multi part roles in this production tonight was the excellent Francesca Tomlinson.
Charlotte Bronte spared Jane Eyre no misery in her life, and just when you think things can not get any worse for her, they do (maybe a lesson there for all optimists out there). This is a story of continual challenges and adversity, but as always some definite characters stand out from the rest – Mrs Reed (Lynda Rooke) and Bessie (Evelyn Miller) and Mr Brocklehurst (Paul Mundell) - all wonderfully brought to life by an excellent cast.
At its core though, Jane Eyre has two central characters – Jane and her employer Mr Rochester. So much of the success of this production rests upon the relationship between Jane and Mr Rochester, and Tim Delap gives a wonderful performance here of a more than troubled spirit who has more than a secret or two in his mansion’s rooms. The relationship between Jane and Rochester is believable on stage, but again, this is no contemporary period swooning love story with a pale sickly heroine…this is a strong willed and opinionated young woman coming to terms with an unexpected proposal of marriage from someone far outside her own social class.
Special mention in this production has to go to Melanie Marshall as Bertha Mason. I could listen to this lady singing all night with great soulful interpretations of “Mad About The Boy” and “Crazy”.
Not forgetting of course, a very unusual dog.
The decision to have a more abstract set (Designer Michael Vale ) rather than a period setting one actually worked here (even if at times it reminded me of vintage 1960s Ladderax shelving units) as it allowed us to concentrate on the narrative itself, and skilful use of lighting (Aideen Malone) and sound brought scenes to life as required. Also working very well was the integration of on stage musicians into the story so that their music enhanced rather than distracted from as required. Some interesting music tucked away here – including “I Walk The Line”. Nice costume designs too from Katie Sykes.
Jane Eyre an autobiography forced Charlotte Bronte out of her literary pseudonym of Currer Bell and, like her heroine, into global recognition and fame, and nearly 170 years later neither show any signs of losing their star status with millions of fans worldwide.
Review by Tom King