Jane Eyre at Bristol Old Vic – a force of nature

“I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had the courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils.”

There’s not much left of the weekly music press anymore, not in the ink-free days of digital media. No more Melody Maker, the bible of musical pseuds everywhere; no more Sounds, where Metallica and Throwing Muses were uneasy pagefellows. The New Musical Express is still hanging in there, but it’s a shadow of what it once was.

There was once a weekly feature in the Melody Maker called Rebellious Jukebox, (bewitchingly named for one of the most cantankerous Fall songs), where artists of the day would discuss their favourite works of music. Quite often, it descended down a rabbit-hole of baffling obscurity, with now-forgotten Goths quoting Bukowski and Nietzsche, tripping over their Doc Martens to be edgy and existential.

As a daydreaming teenager in rural Nottinghamshire, I’d often hope that one day I’d have my own Rebellious Jukebox feature, where I could share with the world my own complexity and passions and the world would marvel at how wise beyond my years, how refined I was.

I was rather an odd child.

Wuthering Heights would have been the first book on my list of tortured and torturous literature. When you’re fifteen, it’s the most incredible story in the world, forceful in its Grand Guignol melodrama. It’s furious; it speaks to the angry adolescent. There are thunderstorms and wild men, bleak moors and mental cruelty. It’s Sylvia Plath and King Lear all rolled into one potent package.

Yes, I would have said to the world with the certainty and simplicity of youth, Emily Bronte *is* the best Bronte.

Yet as I grow older and a little bit wiser, it’s not Catherine Earnshaw I aspire to be – wild, fervent, the inflamer of men’s ardour – it’s clever, self-sufficient Jane Eyre who ‘no net can ensnare’ yet whose passions run deep into the Yorkshire earth, who life has dealt blow after blow but who stays standing proud.

Last weekend, Badger and I went to the Bristol Old Vic as Sally Cookson’s production of Jane Eyre returned to the city after a run at the National Theatre. We’d seen it in 2014, in its original two-part format (four and a half bum-numbing Bronte hours!) and been blown away by the power of the performances and staging. Such a simple setting, just some wooden platforms and ladders, but such ambition and skill. With just a few wooden frames, Jane’s childhood imprisonment at Lowood is captured; with a handful of actors, the characters spring into life from the page; with a piano, percussion and strings, Jane’s world is given a musical heartbeat. There are so many moments to love, from Jane’s journey to Thornfield as the actors run on the spot to the point of exhaustion, to the thrilling voice of Melanie Marshall singing ‘Mad About The Boy’ when Jane laments losing Rochester to the wily Blanche Ingram.

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For me, this adaptation completely changed how I saw Charlotte Bronte’s heroine. She’s played here by Madeleine Worrall, who reveals the fear and courage of Jane in a way that I’d never quite seen before – previously, Samantha Morton had been my favourite Jane, in a nineties ITV production with a scowling Ciaran Hinds as Rochester, but this Jane captures the character’s growth from a powerless, put-upon child to an independently-minded woman. The original title of the book was Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, and, as Sally Cookson writes in her preface to the programme, it is a Life story rather than a Love story, with lessons for how we should live in order to be truly free.

There’s a sly humour in the book that I completely missed when reading it as a teenager, but Cookson’s adaptation is full of wit. On being asked by a pious schoolmaster how she will avoid falling into the fiery pit of hell; Jane answers simply that she must try to avoid dying; she’s constantly teasing Rochester about his glowering countenance; she slaps down the smug clergyman St John, with his less than enticing proposal to join him in Africa as a missionary’s wife. Worrall is a delightful Jane – sharp, deft and always believable.

When it comes to the book, there are things to be wary of, but they only reveal themselves to the reader with personal reflection and a knowledge of the private story behind the public novel. Charlotte Bronte was thirty-one when Jane Eyre was published, though the tale was in the planning for much longer and several elements are autobiographical – the death of two of her sisters at a boarding school is reimagined as the demise of the saintly Helen, and Bronte herself was fiercely in love with a married man who, she said, viewed her as his intellectual equal. I think, in her desire to give Jane the happy ending she didn’t have for herself, poor Bertha Rochester is despatched off-stage with somewhat unseemly haste. If she’d been writing with less personal engagement, I wonder if she would have given Bertha a better send off rather than, like Jane, being persuaded by Rochester that it was all a “capital error – not a crime, but an error”, in the words of the Cookson production.

I loved this adaptation, quite simply and plainly. My teenage self would have rolled her eyes and muttered under her breath, but I would tell her firmly to grow up. Jane Eyre is the woman we should all aspire to be, and this adaptation is worthy of her spirit, strong will, and yearning for new experiences. Reader, I adored it.

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Categories: Books, Theatre

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