The rise and fall of Ms Eyre



TRUE friendship: Helen Burns (Laura Elphinstone) and Jane Eyre (Madeleine Worrall) in the Sally Cookson production. Photograph courtesy

IF YOU’VE REACHED the point of misremembering the magic of theatre, having not seen anything live and outstanding since lockdown was declared a couple of weeks ago, look no further. Sally Cookson’s whopping three hour long production of Charlotte Brontë’s great 1847 classic Jane Eyre brings all the magic of a period drama to an almost Beckettian contemporary stage.

Designed by Michael Vale, the set of this work resembles a rudimentary obstacle course, but as the magnificently choreographed and directed cast inhabit and plummet the possibilities of the ladders, boxes and ramps, with movement and choral potency, so do the iconic establishments of Gateshead and Thornfield Hall, so central to any filmic reflection on this classic, come to mind. Cookson cuts through stereotypes like a hot knife through butter, engaging a lively cast of old and young thespians and people of all skin colour.

The play’s the thing in this deeply intelligent yet profoundly accessible representation of this well-loved story, and with the utterly remarkable Madeleine Worrall in the eponymous lead, you’re taken through Eyre’s tragic and complicated life from her days of swaddling clothes to her marriage. The pillars of the story are beautifully crafted with immense clarity, and even if you do not know the novel, you are swept away on the threads of injustice and cruelty, victory and hurt that filter through this work, evoking such important feminist texts as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

Indeed, almost like a Greek tragedy, the work bears all the characters and nuances from curtain up to its emotional denouement, including the secret madwoman, Bertha Mason, played here by the astonishingly fine contralto, Melanie Marshall. Music is very central to the work, with a live ensemble seated around a piano, exuding unique sounds, important to the pace of the work.

Worrall is completely exceptional offering a robust and real take on a great fictional character, but she doesn’t do it alone. The collaborative energies of the cast of seven in this sterling production are chameleonic and completely perfect in the manner in which they portray everything from the complicated situation at the school to which the young Jane is sent to the dog, Pilot, in Thornfield Hall.

The costumes in this work are witty and light without stripping away the period feel. You see the cast going up and down ladders dressed in big skirts and corsets, but there is nothing laboured about this wise and careful understanding of period and costume.

Above all, Jane Eyre is the quintessential love story couched in the safety of the hero’s myth. If you’ve read the book, you know how it all pans out. But the outrageous and completely brilliant directorial decisions taken will raise you to having witnessed another level of creative possibility. This production is everything. You will give it a standing ovation from the comfort of your own bed.

  • Jane Eyre is written by Charlotte Brontë and directed by Sally Cookson for the Bristol Old Vic theatre. It is performed by Craig Edwards, Laura Elphinstone, Felix Hayes, Melanie Marshall, Simone Saunders, Maggie Tagney and Madeleine Worrall. Produced and presented by National Theatre Live, it features a trio of musicians: Benji Bower, Will Bower and Phil King, and creative input by Michael Vale (set design), Aideen Malone (lighting), Dominic Bilkey (sound), Benji Bower (music), Katie Sykes (costumes), Dan Canham (movement) and Mike Akers (dramaturgy). It broadcasts until April 15 via the National Theatre’s youtube channel.

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