Jane Eyre at the National Theatre

This week the National Theatre production of Jane Eyre is free to stream on YouTube (here). Jane Eyre is one of my favourite books ever and so I always love seeing how others interpret and adapt the book. I saw the play live on stage two years after this production was filmed during a tour through England in 2017 but with a different cast. I saw it once alone during a matinee and a few days later dragged my husband and kids with me to see it as well. Re-reading what I wrote then, I still agree with my impressions then. There were some points of criticism but every Jane Eyre adaptation has its little gripes for me. Those gripes don’t stop me from finding great things in the adaptations and I found this to be one of the best I have seen yet.

Madeleine Worrall plays Jane Eyre, Felix Hayes plays Rochester. The leads didn’t seem quite right when I saw the first images (Worrall seemed a bit too old to play Jane and Hayes didn’t seem dark enough) but I forgot all that as the play progressed. In the adaptation I saw on tour 3 years ago, I felt the actors looked better for their parts (younger and darker) but in the end it’s all about the intensity and it was there in this version as well as in the one I saw on stage in 2017. What I also loved was that the cast was quite small and it meant that (apart from Worrall) each actor played several characters within the story. Each character is distinctive enough for it to not be confusing and I also loved how even the dog Pilot was acted out in this play, a nice bit of comic relief. Even the musicians on stage (another awesome feature) became part of the cast on occasion.

Here’s a trailer:

Warning: pic spam ahead and spoilers for the story as well should you not know it!

All elements of the story are there in this adaptation as they should be. The story is after all not only a love story, it is a story of growing up, emancipation, strength of character, dealing with pain and loss, striving for freedom and finding your place in the world. Jane’s childhood experiences very much shape the young woman she is to become, so it’s good to see a good deal of time spent on her childhood, at first with the Reed family. She is tenacious, strong willed with a deep sense of right and wrong, and will not be trampled on even though her aunt is uncaring and her cousin bullies her. She likes to escape into reading and in her lonely life her only friend is Bessie, the maid.

The second half of her childhood is spent at Lowood institution. There is so much movement and choreography in this play and I love how they used movement to convey travel.

Lowood is a place of despair but Jane finds a little light for a little while in her friend Helen, whom she sadly also loses.

When she grows up she becomes a teacher at Lowood but yearns to be free. The cast not only play the pupils, they also on occasion play the voices in Jane’s head. I loved that as it felt true to the book where you constantly read all that Jane is thinking.

She advertises and comes to work at Thornfield Hall where she becomes a governess to Adele, the charge of a Mr. Rochester. Just pic spamming here now as she comes to know Adele and Mr Rochester and Mrs Fairfax the housekeeper…

She saves Mr Rochtester from a fire…

… and becomes jealous of Miss Ingram…

… and helps Rochester in a time of need which he thanks her for…

She may look grey and little but she shows a strength of character and steadiness that completely appeals to the gruff and wounded Rochester. She is his saviour although she does not know that yet. She leaves Thornfield for a bit (during the haggling for money part, which I always love, I wished for the “you shall walk up the pyramids of Egypt!” line but alas it wasn’t in there)…

She then returns but refuses to stay with Rochester other than on her own terms. She wants to be free.

Rochester finally confesses his feelings…

… and they almost marry despite Mr Rochester’s secret which he tries to keep hidden until after he has secured Jane.

Alas, the wedding is interrupted and that is always an extremely heartbreaking part of the story. After all of this hardship and strife the little happiness that was finally attained is cruelly lost again. Yes, the happiness was built on a lie and so had no chance of really thriving but it’s still sad. Jane stays strong and principled and Rochester must deal with the reality of his secret. Jane heartbreakingly leaves him, it is the only way.

After some more hardship she finds a new life with the Rivers family where she is content enough. However, she will not compromise her own feelings when St. John asks her to marry him, she will remain strong and true to herself no matter how difficult it is… Her tenaciousness of spirit, built up from her youth, remains intact.

Then on the wind from far away she hears Rochester call out for her…

Jane Eyre NT 2015 (220)

… and she returns to Thornfield Hall where she hears of the fire that burnt the place down and the death of the mysterious inhabitant there. The “Crazy” song that is sung here by the amazing Melanie Marshall (she also played this part in the 2017 tour!) and the way that part of the story is told, just gives me goosebumps.

The reunion of Jane and Rochester is of course beautiful…

… but the one thing I always miss in these adaptations is how Jane saves Rochester yet again at the end of the book, pulling him out of his dispair and feelings of worthlessness. The reunion part of the chapter is always there but I miss the rest of the chapter as well where she basically plays him so that he will come out of his self-pity. Oh well, there is no perfect adaptation out there although I have to say, this one does come close for me!

I also loved the use of music in this adaptation, from the musicians playing on stage to the role of singer Melanie Marshall as Bertha and as sometime narrator. The music is very evocative.

Let me end with a little video about how the whole play was devised, including an interview with Worrall and Hayes.

What I love about the Jane Eyre story is how Jane is always true to herself, believes she is worth something, sticks to what she feels is right and will not compromise on striving for her freedom and for what makes her happy. I love that she seems grey and hidden and Mr Rochester is the first one to finally see who she is in her glory. I love that, through finally being seen and finding an equal sparring partner, she starts to soar. Rochester helps her bloom and in turn she saves Rochester from his darkness. This adaptation brings Jane and Rochester to life though simple-looking staging, inventive choreography, wonderful music and great performances. I conveyed my enthusiasm in the live chat during the premiere live-stream this last Thursday on YouTube and even received a chat reply.

This play is a keeper (and very worth donating to should you feel so inclined).

Jane Eyre in Leeds!

During my summer holiday we also were in Yorkshire and stayed not too far from Leeds. As it happens, the play Jane Eyre, staged by The National Theatre, has been touring England and was in Leeds at the same time as when we were there. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is one of my absolute favourite books, I think I have seen pretty much every TV and film adaptation, but I had never seen a play of it before. Naturally, I couldn’t resist it and, months before we even left for England, I had already booked my ticket for a matinée showing on a Wednesday afternoon. The kids lazed away at the campsite that day, Mr Esther chose to go to a museum and I chose to go see the play. And what a play it was! I loved it so much, that that Wednesday evening I went online and purchased another 4 tickets for the Saturday evening performance, so that my husband and kids could see it as well.

The staging was simple: a wooden construction with ladders and a ramp that is used for many purposes in different house-settings. The top part is, for instance, used as the feared red room of Jane’s childhood in Gateshead, a school bedroom at Lowood school, or Jane’s room in Thornfield Hall when she is a grown up.

There was a cast of about 15 people, and every person, except for Jane, played multiple roles. When I told Mr. Esther about that after the first time I had seen it, he thought it sounded confusing, but it really isn’t. Each character is so different, it isn’t difficult to understand who is who. For me, that also goes to show how great the acting is – the actors just disappear into their roles. On the Wednesday matinée the understudy Phoebe Vigor played the role of Jane Eyre…

… and when we saw it on Saturday evening the regular lead Nadia Clifford played Jane.

Both actresses were very good but I do think that Nadia had the edge over Phoebe in her intensity of her portrayal of Jane. To me, she delivered a stand-out performance, along with Tim Delap as Mr. Rochester; Evelyn Miller, who played several roles (Bessie, Blanche Ingram and St. John Rivers!) and Paul Mundell who also played several roles (Mr. Brocklehurst, Mason and the very funny role of Pilot, the dog!). These pictures are from the programme booklet I had purchased:

Not only the play and the acting were phenomenal, the music was as well, with original music but also some adapted pieces of music and even a sort of on-the-road-rap when Jane goes travelling! There is a 3 piece band on the stage in the background and occasionally the musicians become part of the cast as well. The other stand-out performance was by singer Melanie Marshall who has a phenomenal voice. She is a Greek chorus of sorts who pops up during several scenes and is also Bertha Mason. When she sings “Does that make me crazy?” at the end as Bertha dies, it is truly a goosebumps moment.

Here’s a little featurette on the music of this production:

These following pictures of the play give you an impression of what it all looked like. There was Jane’s childhood, of course, in Gateshead, here with Mr. Brocklehurst examining her before she goes to Lowood and Jane’s travel by coach to said school/institution, which was extremely well done with movement and rhythm and stops for sheep on the road!

Costume changes for Jane happened on stage and she had to wear a school uniform, of course. The 3 band members also became students at Lowood, hence the bearded girls in these pictures below (click to enlarge). 🙂 The children keep warm by the fire at the cold school, Jane is punished and has to stand on a stool and she makes a friend named Helen and is with her as Helen dies…

Jane grows up and becomes a teacher, her growing up illustrated by her change in clothes when she has to start wearing a corset and pulls her hair back. She becomes a teacher and is at first happy but soon the dreariness of repetition creeps in and Jane feels boxed in. She advertises and then leaves Lowood for Thornfield Hall to work as a governess there, where she feels free!

She meets Mr. Rochester who comes dashing  by on a horse, with his dog Pilot accompanying him (Jane on the left, Pilot running down the ramp, Rochester on his horse on the right).

JANE EYRE UK Tour 2017 Royal National Theatre

Rochester and Jane become acquainted and fall in love…

… despite the vain Blanche Ingram…

Jane Eyre (12)

After Jane returns from visiting her dying aunt in Gateshead, Rochester proposes and is accepted by an initially unbelieving Jane.

Jane Eyre (12a)

There is also the incident with the torn veil…

Jane getting dressed for her wedding happens on stage.

But then all dreams are shattered when the truth about Rochester and Bertha emerges and Jane has to leave…

Jane runs away from Thornfield and is finally taken in by St. John Rivers and his sister (only one sister in the play).

Jane Eyre St John Rivers

In the end Jane is able to return to Rochester and it is a beautiful, heart-soaring scene when they reunite.

Even though the play was 3 hours long, the story was still condensed. That did make me miss some things. For instance, Jane and Rochester falling in love happened so quickly, I remember missing some of the build up. At times Jane, though strong and steadfast, also seemed a little meek during the beginning of their relationship. Maybe if they had kept more of the dialogue of their initial conversations, I might not have thought that.

Also, as with pretty much all adaptations I have seen, the ending did not quite satisfy me. Of course, I love the Jane and Rochester reunion but there is more to the ending than only that aspect. A lot is made of Jane’s feistiness (I loved that, often made me think of my daughter, which is why I thought she might enjoy the play too!) and her independent will. In the book, Jane gains final independence through an inheritance and when she chooses Rochester, it is a real free choice and not something she has to do to stay out of poverty. The inheritance, however, is never mentioned in the play (even though her uncle in Madeira is!). She has 3 choices in the book: she can stay alone but is rich, she can go to India as a missionary and St. John’s wife, or she can find Rochester. She chooses the latter and when she does find him she is maybe more than his equal – she essentially is the one who rescues him, not he her! This rescuing of Rochester never comes out in adaptations and it never came out here either.  Yes, she loves Rochester in the play and choosing him was right, but her independence in making this right choice for herself didn’t quite come through here for me.

The ending of any Jane Eyre adaptation I have seen is always a bit of a sore point for me. No adaptation has ever shown it as it really should be in my eyes, with only the 2006 BBC mini series coming close to that. There were things wrong with that series too, but I liked the ending.

Having said all that, I still loved this play! I loved that all the stages in Jane’s life were represented and that it wasn’t only about the Rochester-Jane love story, I loved the intensity of the leads which brought me to tears several times, I loved the staging of it, how alive it felt, the humour and the drama.  Jane was the right amount of feisty and independent but was also invisible when she needed to be; Rochester was the right amount of gruff and world-weary, yet wounded.  Jane was small and nice looking but not too pretty, Rochester was tall and nice looking but not too handsome, just as they should be.

Originally this was a 4 hour play in two parts (shown on two consecutive evenings) that was later condensed to 3 hours for The National Theatre. I would have loved to have seen it in the original 4 hours, maybe I would have then not missed what I mentioned above. In any case, this was very much worth seeing and yes, my family enjoyed it as well! Here is the trailer again, it really gives a good impression of the feel of the play.

There are also some fun rehearsal pictures to share from the programme in which we see Pilot lying on the floor while Adele pets him and Rochester & Jane are talking, Adele showing Rochester Jane’s paintings and Adele playing with Pilot who has jumped onto Rochester’s chair (click to enlarge):

And another rehearsal picture I came across online:Tim-Delap-Nadia-Clifford-in-rehearsal-for-Jane-Eyre

As I was looking for images online, I saw that Nadia Clifford and Tim Delap had also visited Charlotte Brontë’s home in Haworth, with pictures of them in character around the Brontë parsonage. I find these pictures especially evocative, maybe because I have recently been there myself.

I think I have to rank this adaptation at the top end of my favourite Jane Eyre adaptations list! I haven’t seen a perfect adaptation yet, but that’s OK, what counts is that I loved this one, despite some of the faults. I was almost going to say that I wish it was available via Digital Theatre, but with the drama that is happening there now with ‘purchased productions’ I think I’m happy that they don’t have it… I do wish I could see this again, though!