The trouble with writing a review about a brilliant play is that you don’t want to give too much away. In an ideal world, everyone trotting into the Bristol Old Vic to witness their production of Jane Eyre would do so with a fresh, and preferably cynical, eye. I was certainly cynical, having disliked the novel from a young age (my allegiance lying steadfastly with Wuthering Heights and my mind set against the possibility that I could like both books). Many of the things I dislike about the novel, however – the convenience of the random inheritance, Bertha scampering around the attic like a dog, and, of course, the incessant moralising of Jane’s internal monologue – were somehow translated into positive features in Sally Cookson’s production.
Thankfully, the random inheritance is omitted and Jane’s return to Rochester is an act of passion, not one ratified by her rise to a respectable social rank. And rather than revelling in the melodrama of Bertha tearing apart a room with her claws, the production presents us with a far more enjoyable strain of hysteria in Craig Edwards’ depiction of Pilot the dog.
The company transform the dirge-like narrative of the novel into the story of an explosively-lived life through expression of movement, language, colour, shape and music. The play is devised straight from the novel, meaning that the ensemble cast respond to the narrative expressionistically, using their bodies as weather-vanes for the flighty winds of emotion that tumble through Jane’s mind. The cast switch between multiple roles and their faces recurrently haunt the stage in different guises: Felix Hayes plays both Jane’s father and Rochester, the father of her child (and also a rather amusing bearded schoolgirl); Laura Elphinstone is the modestly pious Helen Burns and the immodestly pious St John Rivers (hooray for the female St John, livening up the frankly boring digression of the novel).
Each movement the characters make around the scaffold designed by Michael Vale appears to be magnetically synchronised with the roaming trajectory of the perennially lost Jane across the stage. At times, the actors become Jane’s eternally battling thoughts, crowding around her, whispering their doubts and secret desires. By externalising Jane’s thoughts, we can focus on her, and the way in which she tells her story through her body.
Madeleine Worrall is endlessly superb as Jane, stumping around stage with wild hair as a miserable child, straightening her spine to become a self-controlled governess, arching her back as she leans away from her embrace with Rochester. She depicts exactly what is like to be a confused child, hunched up with her knees under her chin, a self-conscious but defiant little creature.
Enforcing the haunting quality of the rotating faces and actors is a piercingly beautiful music score composed by Benji Bower. Melanie Marshall’s voice holds together the narrative, performing the function of memory, intruding when you least expect it, and dragging one’s mind across the boundaries of space and time (which is perhaps the reason for which Edward’s voice can supernaturally leap across the entire county of Yorkshire; a moment I still, I’m afraid, find hilarious).
If there are any slight lapses in pace and vigour across the two parts they appear natural in the development of what never ceases to feel like a real human story, and, after four hours of pure, unadulterated enjoyment, my hard-worn cynicism for the novel was completely overcome.