Emerging from Bristol Old Vic after seven hours inside the theatre I felt a little like a hibernating creature blinking wildly in the new daylight. The famous theatre is staging a bravely long two-part version of Charlotte Bronte’s famous Jane Eyre, although there’s no rule that says you have to see both parts in the same day!
Directed by Sally Cookson, this new version of Jane Eyre is an impressive one. With a multi-purpose, split-level stage (which reminded me of an adventure playground), the set is easily adaptable for Jane’s many life stages, and with four-and-a-half hours at her disposal, Cookson has plenty of time to take us on a tour of Jane’s tumultuous experiences. Although I was desperately wishing that the characters would stop running up and down ladders as it was becoming very distracting and kept making me think they were in a giant game of Snakes and Ladders.
As Jane, Madeleine Worrall is never off stage, which is an amazing feat of endurance. More so for the fact that the quality of her performance never slips, and it seems impossible to imagine a more perfect actor for this role. Having previously seen Madeline as Wendy in Peter Pan (another Cookson production for Bristol Old Vic), to see her as Jane Eyre felt like a natural evolution.
Is it safe to assume you know the story of Jane Eyre? If you don’t, shame on you and I urge you to read the novel immediately. It’s one of my favourites and stands up well to multiple re-readings. But there is always a risk of potential disappointment when seeing one of your favourite novels reworked into another format. However, Cookson’s version does not disappoint. She has said that she wanted to divide the play into two parts to allow space for the story to breathe and grow, and to show how the character of Jane has evolved due to the hardships, cruelty and misery she has endured.
There are moments of light relief to temper the relentless gloom in her life, though. The transitional coach scenes are great fun, and Craig Edwards as Rochester’s dog Pilot is an absolute delight.
An absolute highlight of the production is Benji Bower’s music throughout, which at times bordered on the Lynchian. Bower’s band achieve the combined tasks of blending into the middle of the set, as well as joining in with the ensemble cast at times. And the music itself was sublime, especially when sung.
But the outstanding highlight of the production was Melanie Marshall’s Bertha Mason, the mad woman in the attic. Marshall has the most mesmerising voice, and added a layer of errie threat to the entire production. Although as lovely as her renditions of Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy and Noel Coward’s Mad About The Boy were, I did feel that such contemporary songs didn’t necessarily fit in this period piece. Although Marshall’s performance of both was thoroughly absorbing.
I felt part one of Jane Eyre was much stronger than the second, although that may well have been because I was struggling with endurance by the second part! It’s ambitious to produce such a long adaptation of the book, but ultimately Cookson pulls it off - especially with the wonderful addition of Bower’s music.
For more information and to buy tickets, please click here. My recommendation is that you spread the joy and see the two parts on different days.