Back to ‘Jane Eyre: An Autobiography’
I love Jane Eyre. I love the Brontës. Gospel of Yorkshire, feeling anything less is most likely blasphemy in particularly wiley Women’s Institutes. As far as literature goes – which is quite far if what they say on Radio4 is anything to go by – Jane Eyre is a force to be reckoned with. Not even a half-hearted English degree could knock it off the plinth I built for it as a maudlin teenager.
When it comes to drama, however, I do not not wave my white flag so easily. My closed mind is, cruelly and unduly, suspicious of performing arts – a predisposition only worsened by my involuntary exposure to am-dram and student lovey wannabes. Surely I can’t be the only one given a weak stomach for theatrics after being roped into to see a horrendous rendition of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience…?
Heathen that I am, I have tended to find myself embarrassed, unconvinced or just plain annoyed by the best efforts of various talented performers across the UK. I am trying to get a grip; I’m told that I would enjoy it if I gave it a chance – but old habits die hard.
Enter the live screening! The benign solution for easing me into my theatre education. No need to slum it at local productions, you can watch a filmed version of top whack performances at the cinema, sometimes even as they happen! I saw The Globe’s Titus Andronicus in the flesh before I watched a screening of the same show and it didn’t feel like an afterthought at all. The only thing you really miss out on is the smell, which is forgivable unless you’re a massive incense fan.
You get to sit in the plush seats reserved for only the most au-fait events at my local cinema and your fellow audience members send approving looks your way for making the intellectually enlightened decision at the box-office. Eat your popcorn too loudly though and you will be the recipient of scathing looks from across the darkness. Believe me – I was the one doing the tittering.
So it was quite willingly that I reserved tickets for Jane Eyre at Nottingham’s Broadway, knowing precious little about what I was in store for.
Thirty seconds in to the show, I had already clocked the exit routes to my escape. The first act opened with a fully grown Madeleine Worrall imitating an infant’s wailing as Jane Eyre enters the world. Alarm bells engaged. I took in the stripped down set design, the live band at the centre of it all and I became very worried. To my relief, the cast swiftly morphed into new characters to begin the telling of Jane’s childhood; I persevered and I am so glad I did.
I have never watched a TV or film production of Jane Eyre that has been so true to the novel, let alone done it justice. For once, we were given Jane’s autobiography and not shortchanged with an odd and unremarkable love story. A generous portion of the three hour performance didn’t even feature Rochester at all; the traumas of Jane’s growing up – the red room, school, returning to her dying aunt – were given all the time they were due as crucial defining moments of Jane’s character.
The cast was relatively small for such a long and full performance. Each actor switched between roles pretty rapidly and it worked so well at keeping the tempo up. Not even one minor character was played weakly as a result; Laura Elphinstone transformed particularly seamlessly from Helen to St John. I can imagine that it is extraordinarily difficult to play either Jane Eyre or Mr Rochester; to get the measure of their essential likeableness as the underdog heroes of the novel, as well as their faults and darknesses. Yet, Madeline Worrall’s Jane seemed to have been plucked from my own head and Felix Hayes was funny, aggressive, remorseful and so believable in his fascinated affinity with Jane. They were so good that I can forgive their unspeakably sickening interview shown during the interval.
The stage was fitted with a simple architectural structure; a space that the actors travelled on and around during the play. Instead of hiding Jane within a shadowy, oppressive Thornfield Hall, there was a real lightness and openness to the set, as though we had unlimited access to Jane. There was constant, beautiful music too; the way it changed from scene to scene, moment to moment helped the audience to navigate their way around Jane’s mind and emotional state, as well as manoeuvring us through different geographical locations. How they managed to credibly include a version of Gnarls Barcley’s Crazy I don’t know, but they did it. There was also a great twist with the lead singer which I won’t blurt out and spoil.
Like the novel itself, the performance was just so moving. One of my companions cried consistently through the entire duration between tear-streaked fistfuls of malteasers. Jane Eyre has another sold out run at the London Southbank this month but there is also a long list of National Theatre live-screenings planned for the new year, including As You Like It in February. Go and join the converted, it’s not as hard as you might think.