I was lucky enough to secure the final ticket at my local theatre for the National Theatre's live streaming of Jane Eyre from the Lyttlelton theatre in London. Obviously it would be better to see these performances in the flesh, but I have found the live streaming to be an opening to a world of great performances that I would otherwise miss. A live stream will cost me about £15, whereas a trip to London to see a show, well we're talking about £300, at least!!!
I am so pleased that I got to see this production, it was a dramatically and energised contemporary twist on a classic novel, however, for some members of the audience it seemed that it was too contemporary "too much running around the stage in my opinion" said someone, "I don't know why they have to mess around with the original" said another! I found the performance refreshing. It was a piece of theatre, not a re-enactment of the book.
The stage is minimalistic and reminded me of school gym sessions, with its use of A-style climbing frames, wooden planks and ladders. The travelling up and down this apparatus gave the illusion of Jane's dramatic journey, and I thought it was a clever way of using the stage without a number of unnecessary set designs. In order to show the interminable coach journey's the actors did a group run on the spot; if you engaged your imagination, you were right there with Jane, in the coach, in the red room, in school, in Thornfield Hall, and even in the dramatic climax of the show you were transported to the burnt out shell of a former home with this simplistic design.
Whilst the set was stark, the use of costume was cleverly integrated into the performance. Rather than being a distraction, the costumes helped reflect the story, showing the change of Jane from babe in arms, to ten year old misfit and finally the young headstrong woman we venerate.
This isn't a lavish production, it is simple, reliant on the performances of the actors, they don't have props and sets to hide behind, it is the bare bones of theatre. Credit has to be given to the actors for conveying such raw feelings of isolation and childlike curiosity in the opening scenes of the play. You forgot at times that you were watching adults, you were drawn into the world of the ten year old, how scared they would be locked in a dark room as a punishment for what? For having an opinion, for being an orphan and forced to live with a family that never wanted you?
The show was originally produced at the Old Vic in Bristol, and was originally a production which was acted out over two nights When it moved to London, it had to be cut into a one night show but still retain the fundamental essence of the original. What I enjoyed was that this production told the story of Jane, it was like her autobiography, as opposed to just telling the love story of Jane falling in love with Mr Rochester. We lived Jane's life, we felt the anguish of her repressed cruel childhood, her hope that things would get better if she went away to school. The torment of realising that the bullying had followed her, that her solitude would continue, and even when finding solace in one friend, that relationship being cruelly terminated.
As adumbrated above, the play sounds like it could be three hours of misery and torture that you were about to endure, but you would be wrong. The play cleverly interspersed periods of deeply charged emotion with some uplifting pieces of humour. When Jane returns to Thornfield Hall and produces a present for her pupil Adèle Varens we see Adele open up a gingerbread man which she names Mr Rochester, and then casually bites his head off with a look of pure ecstasy on her face! Speaking of Mr Rochester, he is introduced to us writhing on the floor shouting "Oh Fuck!" Jane has startled his horse and he has fallen, and he is letting the world know that he is some considerable pain!!
Another element of Jane Eyre which worked well was the placement of the band on stage, and the use of a singer who arrived and departed from the stage at some of the most haunting parts of the play. The band became a part of the performance, the use of music as a highlighter rather than just a general requirement of the theatre. As Jane is wrestling with her feelings for Mr Rochester, Dinah Washington's "Mad About the Boy" is belted out, and as the play draws to a close and Jane is walking through the shell of Thornfield Hall, a slow operatic version of Gnarly Barkley's "Crazy" makes a spellbinding finale.
I enjoyed the evening immensely. I thought that I had watched a clever and innovative production that evoked memories of the book, but had not become a slave to it.