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JANE EYRE – in two parts – Bristol Old Vic


“I am no bird, and no net ensnares me!”.    As if in answer to Jane’s cry of defiance Sally Cookson’s  spare, thrilling, physically expressive production frees Charlotte Bronte from the fusty old netting of Mills-and-Boonery which marks even the best screen adaptations.   Madeleine Worrall has a tough striding attractiveness, not misty glamour:   the skeletal ladders and frames where the cast run and climb and gallop free the emotion of the story from period chintziness.  Empty windowframes high aloft, or held up by the cast to fling open or close in on Jane are a powerful economical metaphor: her inward thoughts are sometimes spoken by a protean ensemble.  Pure theatre, passionate not pretentious, sweeps aside cobwebs and uncovers the hot smouldering core of the story.

There are two parts (see both!),  a brave decision rooted in determination to convey the early part, the orphan at Mrs Reed’s mercy and the hollow pieties of Lowood school  (imaginative chanting use is made of the Penny Catechism, enjoining the child at bedtime to “thoughts of death”. I remember that, brrr.).    It gives proper weight to incidentals like the trammelled kindness of the maid Bessie,  and above all it respects the plight of poor mad Bertha Rochester.   Brilliantly, she is played by that tremendous mezzo Melanie Marshall,  wandering around singing at key moments all through.  She has a recurring, haunting folksong of orphanhood, a tremendous Kyrie,  and a moody “Mad about the Boy” speaking for both Bertha and Jane.   Sly, that: indeed there always was more than a touch of cad-about-the-boy in Rochester’s masterful insolence.   And Bertha’s unforgettable rendering of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” at the fiery climax is overwhelming in its pity and savagery.

The doubling and trebling of parts by the ensemble weaves new meanings and ambiguities into the well-worn tale:  dialogue is sparse and finely judged with an extraordinary amount being conveyed by movement  and by Benji Bowers’  haunting score, from folk to cabaret to echoes of Elgar and Britten .  But when Bronte’s words are spoken they find fresh power:  the scene in the second part when Rochester (Felix Hayes)  declares himself to a sceptical Jane is as stroppy and defiant as it should be.   There is some humour – not least Craig Edwards’ occasional metamorphoses into Pilot the dog,  Laura Elphinstone’s careering dangerously around on the set’s walkways as Adela,  and Rochester’s petulant “I am disposed to be gregarious and communicative tonight”.

But mostly it is intense storytelling, movement blurringly fast or dreamlike in slowness.  It calls up  the older, darker folktale awareness which always underlies the Brontes‘ work:  a touch of Bluebeard, of faery,  a pre-Christian passion and danger.  The quality which makes Jane so pleasingly resistant to the missionary earnestness of St John Rivers and his immortal “You were framed for labour, not for love, I claim you for the Lord’s service”.   Altogether, this extraordinary interpretation arouses feelings long forgotten:  the impact of first reading the book,  a childlike resentment of injustice and inchoate sense of romance, the terror of madness and nightmare and the secret conviction that the individual must and will endure.   It is a wonderful production.  Reader, I’d marry it.

box office  0117 987 7877   to  29 March

Rating:  five  5 Meece Rating


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