Jane Eyre is a timeless classic, and one of my favourite novels that I studied for GCSE and A-level. I have probably read the text by Charlotte Bronte at least five times, so I’m very familiar with the story. I was both excited and apprehensive about seeing a stage production based on this piece of literature, as I wasn’t moved with the film adaptation in comparison with consuming the book. In general, I don’t find films based on novels thoroughly convincing, and does not come close to the experience and process of reading. The visual medium has to bring something different to the narrative in order for it to come alive. Indeed, this play by the National Theatre devised by the original company did not fail in accomplishing this tall order.
The character of the orphaned and troubled Jane Eyre has captured the imagination of thousands. Mistreated at her home by her aunt during her childhood, she embarks on an adventure and finds herself as a governess at Thornfield Hall. She falls in love with the bachelor Mr Rochester, only to find that he is already married to a mentally ill Bertha Mason who lives in the attic. As she attempts to flee from the hardships in her life, she is drawn back to him following a fateful turn of events.
The characterisation was good overall, even though some were not portrayed as I would have imagined – which is one of the dangers in adapting a literary piece for the stage as imagined characters have become ingrained in people’s minds. I perceived Mr Rochester (Tim Delap) to be more stern and serious in the book with a deep and haunting voice, although he did manage to grasp the sensitive and softer side of this complex man. I did admire Nadia Clifford in her depiction of Jane, which posed a mammoth task for her. She managed to convey the range of emotions that we associate with Jane as her life spirals through different periods, and invoked empathy from the audience. The burgeoning relationship between both possessed a dynamic quality, and their reunion at the end was particularly touching and in tune with what I had conjured in my mind from the book. Despite feeling Jane’s angst as ill-luck seems to follow her, I would have liked more intensity in some scenes such as when she leaves Thornfield. The expression of her heartbreak and crying is one of the most powerful scenes in the book for me, and might not have been explored to its utmost in the performance. However, the accent and dialect of all characters represented hard work and training.
The set design is one of the cleverest I have seen, despite a simple wooden appearance and lack of props. A series of ladders and three tiers permitted the actors to maximise the space and move seamlessly from one scene to the next, but also created intricate patterns that coincided with the twists of the plot. For me, it also symbolized the ups and downs of Jane’s life as we saw her endure trials and tribulations before a happy ending. I originally thought that a three hour production might be too long, but the quick pace and tight directing ensured that the essence of the narrative was captured wonderfully.
Both sound and lighting effects are the best I have witnessed. The use of red light was extremely striking, as well as the lamps descending onto the stage. It was especially poignant in the context of madness, terror and nightmares, and the real use of flames on stage brought an authentic feel. The contrast between darkness and light was also used meticulously to highlight the highs and lows of her journey and to create a backdrop of rain.
Sound effects were used effectively to convey scenes of weather change, in particular stormy times. Music was used extensively in an innovative manner, similarly to its use in films, and enhanced the atmosphere of the montage scenes. A solo singer also acted as a kind of narrator in between scenes, and songs such as ‘You think I’m crazy’ injected a modern flavour into this centuries old tale, but was also relevant to the narrative and aided its progression. Her singing was of a high quality, and contributed to a multi-layered and colourful production. I wasn’t quite sure why the band was situated on stage in the midst of the happening, which was also distracting at times when the action was focused on another part of the stage. The only thing I would be critical of was the tendency to amplify the volume of the band, leading to missing some words and even phrases by the actors, whilst the music through the speakers was more controlled. A more balanced volume would ensure that both parties could be heard and would complement each other.
This was an imaginative and clever piece of theatre, and many of the images created will stay with me for a long time. In this day and age where techniques and styles used in fictional films are so advanced and well-funded, it was reassuring to see the potential of special effects in order to reinforce the story. For me, the script contained all the essential elements of the original plot, and Mike Akers should be congratulated for teasing out the nuances of the book as well as the main events. The scenes were driven and summarized by skilful directing, and thus provided a subtle adaptation alongside a moving performance.