Dear Charlotte Bronte,
I would like to apologise for saying Jane Eyre was:
- Nothing happens for ages
- Do people who label things ‘classics’ actually read them?
- I wouldn’t want to be her friend
Please accept my forgiveness. You see Charlotte, when I was thirteen I tried reading Jane Eyre. It’s known as a grown up book, a classic, a right of passage. I’m afraid thirteen year old me also decided it was really, really boring. After a month of staggering through it and only getting to Lowood I eventually gave up. I was so reluctant to read it that it stopped me reading altogether. I picked it up a year later and battled through to the end. I’d done it. I was a woman. (It was okay.)
So my feelings hadn’t really warmed to your creation yet. But last night I went to the National Theatre (hasn’t been built yet, dw about it there’s a lot to explain) to see a devised production of Jane Eyre, and my heart is now aglow with praise. It was a preview and there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle about reviewing previews- I would explain but if you’re only present in our time for the length of this letter then Benedict Cumberbatch probably isn’t where I’d start in explaining modern life- so this is more of an appreciation of them dragging me out of my hatred and into something a lot warmer.
The production definitely takes inspiration from Kneehigh, and there are particular similarities to their production of Rebecca earlier this year. Having the ensemble create the story with revealed stage craft and falling into harmonies with the onstage band feels very familiar. There are also similarities with Bristol Old Vic’s Swallows and Amazons, which again had a Kneehigh-esque feel. There was a lovely moment in Swallows and Amazons when someone lay at the tip of a boat with a glass of water and flicked it at the passengers, and that was the sea. There’s a similarly playful feel here, as one of the cast holds up a lamp and twists his hand like flames, and suddenly the lamp is an enormous comforting fire. This production has a great sense of humour.
Madeleine Worrall as Jane has as good a worry face as Nadiya from Bake Off (if we’re explaining life today The Great British Bake Off is crucial). Her defiance makes me want to hug her. “I am no bird, and no net ensnares me.” As she hitches up her layers of skirts to climb up the scaffolding I wonder if the plasters on her legs are part of her character.
Some of the company move between acting and playing music. The score is like a mix of Nils Frahm, Lo Fang, Mumford and Sons and a jazzy lightning storm. I tried to look on Spotify but the decades section only goes back to the ‘60s so I’m afraid those references might be a bit lost on you. I never knew a bow scraping a cymbal could create such a cuttingly sharp sound.
Like in your book, we see Jane grow. The actors transform from children to adults very naturally, not parodying the children at all. It all feels very honest. A corset is added as Jane grows up to give her a woman’s body rather than that of a child.
“I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you – especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous channel, and two hundred miles or so of land some broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly. As for you, – you’d forget me.”
When Mr Rochester asks Jane to marry him it is the angriest proposal I’ve ever heard, so full of love and impatience, before giving her a very beardy kiss.
While some bits flow others move too fast. They feel disconnected and lose their sense of place that so much of this show secures well. I’m not entirely sure about the conscience bits either. But nothing lasts too long, even though the two shows at Bristol Old Vic have been put together for one epic three and a half hour show.
I don’t want to spoil a surprise in the play so I won’t explain completely. But there’s a singer in this production who wears a red dress and exudes enormous strength in her voice. She lifts the production to another level. Listening to her singing Mad About The Boy is utterly dazzling.
The other best bit is the dog. Craig Edwards as Mr Rochester’s dog (alongside the other hundred parts they each play) has the audience under his control as he pants and drops to the floor as a footstall for his master.
You know when Mr Rochester is blind and injured and tired and Jane comes back to him? She doesn’t say anything, she just walks up to him slowly and touches his hands. At first he flinches but then he seems to recognise them and holds them so tight it looks like he never wants to let go. Can you really know someone so well that you can recognise them simply from the feel of their hands? If so that’s a lovely thing to look forward to.
So apologies Charlotte. This girl has guts. I would totally be her friend.
All the best,
National Theatre, Lyttelton 10/09/15