Review: Jane Eyre (His Majesty's Theatre)
Updated: Jun 10, 2022
“Jane Eyre”. Classic novel by Charlotte Brontё, translated into 30 languages, and have over 500 pages of a woman growing up in difficult circumstances and defying the norms of class and sex. I don’t claim to be an expert on the text, but I know that trying to condense such a complex and slow novel into a three-hour play is ambitious, even by the National Theatre’s standards. Directed by Sally Cookson, this production aimed to show Jane Eye, played by Nadia Clifford, in all her glory and at all stages of her life.
Michael Vale’s set design stands out a mile away – a large, faded wooden platform with ladders and staircases from every angle, white draped background, a live band, and more pyrotechnics than you can shake a stick at. It’s striking, versatile, and embodies the bare life that Jane leads in terms of her family, friendships, material possessions and her stability in her own life and happiness. Similarly, Aideen Malone’s lighting design holds nothing back, and nearly every change in lighting is in its own way dramatic and impactful. However, there is little restraint over the impact of each moment, meaning the lighting used while Jane huddles around a small fire is as dramatic as the fire that eventually engulfs the house. Sometimes holding back on one’s creative abilities is wise in order to maintain the integrity of the narrative.
Sadly, I felt the same was true of Cookson’s directing. It is as though she considered each moment of the play – Jane’s birth, a sewing lesson, her wedding – and was tasked to make every single one stand out and show off her artistic abilities. Which they do. Episodically, there’s always something to admire visually and frequently something to admire conceptually. However, strung together they create such a mix in tones that it ends up feeling like a slightly self-serving production without any fixed idea of how the bigger picture should look, as opposed to a loving adaptation. There are also several moments that come off as redundant and over the top, like the banging of feet to symbolise the banging of a door, far too many window-opening moments, and an inexplicable scene where everyone on stage pauses a journey to urinate. It feels like drama for the same of drama, there’s just no urgency, need or place for this much direction.
The characterisation is difficult to pin down to Cookson or Clifford, but for the first act much of her adventures and experiences were shown happening at her as opposed to really showing her involvement. Even within the first few minutes, we are informed by Jane’s aunt Anne that she is a “tiresome child”. We have so little context at this point and her childhood is so rushed that I have no reason to understand why she is a tiresome child, or at least perceived this way. Clifford’s performance as a young girl seems centred on using unnatural movement and voice to show her age, in addition to throwing an overacted tantrum every five minutes. She showed so little character, which may have been improved had the production allowed a little more time for character development, but even then I have no desire to watch such an unconvincing performance for too long, especially as the quality of the performance soared once she had grown up a bit (though this does jar with the original character). Unfortunately this did not stop the production from persisting in telling us what characteristics we should be seeing in Jane because they don’t have enough time to show us.
It seems to have been Cookson’s idea to have the live band to play music throughout the performance, including the beautiful and haunting vocals of Melanie Marshall, who also plays the insane wife Bertha Marshall. There were adaptations of Dinah Washington’s “Mad About the Boy” and Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”, which feel very out of place and don’t add an awful lot. Marshall herself cannot entirely take credit for the portrayal of Bertha either, as her performance condensed down to stabbing one chap and a lot of walking around and singing. There didn’t seem much point in having her playing Bertha except to justify the out-of-place songs. If anything she just made it more confusing, as walking about the stage warbling beautifully does not exactly portray Bertha’s mental agony. I found all the other music distracting and amped up the already misguided tone, such as the thumpy and jazzy number played whenever Jane was moving anywhere, accompanied with all the remaining actors running on the spot, reminding me unwelcomely of The Sound of Music.
The supporting cast, playing a variety of characters, had hits and misses between them. Hannah Bristow was very sweet and homely in her role as Diana Rivers, but was overly whiney as Adele. Paul Mundell is hilarious and endearing as trusty dog Pilot, but oddly nasal, upright and slow as Mr Brocklehurst. Evelyn Miller was the strongest; austere but kind as Blanche Ingram, and lonely and unfulfilled at St. John (impressively taking on a gender swap and adopting the characteristics seamlessly).
Whether the text has been let down by the production I cannot say, but I feel as though the artists involved have used it as a springboard for their skills and ignoring the less exciting overarching elements of narrative and character development. Any 20 minute section from the National Theatre’s “Jane Eyre” could have been a full length play on its own, hell with the right amount of patience and self-restrain it could have made a really wonderful series. As it is it feels cluttered and overly artistic, despite the spectacle of the visuals. Two stars.