“You are no better than an animal…”
It is hard to feel too inspired by the revivals that keep popping up in the West End – Coward has Blithe Spirit and Relative Values, Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest is set to return soon – knowing full well that they will well-acted (by and large) but conservatively directed, playing it safe in search of the widest audience but consequently lacking any form of real inspiration. Instead, one has to look elsewhere for the kind of innovation that gets me genuinely excited about the prospect of seeing a classic on stage, in this case, Sally Cookson’s production of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre.
The production is split into two shows but I opted for the marathon performance, the two spliced together, to minimise my travelling time and though it was quite the epic journey, I’m glad I did it as it really gave a sense of the grand sweep of the piece to do it in one go. Devised by the company, this highly musical and theatrically inventive interpretation has a wonderfully contemporary edge about it, presenting the narrative very much as we know it but teasing a freshness, a modernity of feeling about the whole affair which makes it a crying shame that it is so relatively short-lived here at the Bristol Old Vic.
Madeleine Worrall’s Jane is just superb, a graceful performance that takes us from the gauche introspection of her abusive childhood through a genuinely moving search for her identity and the blossoming into maturity and acceptance of adulthood and ultimately love. But this is an ensemble show at heart, the rest of the cast covering multiple roles, acting as the Chorus, even Jane’s inner monologues and there’s physical theatre in there too, as they evoke a horse-drawn carriage, a flock of birds or a pet dog. It is highly impressive with Felix Hayes and Laura Elphinstone particular stand-outs for me.
And the ever-present musicians add another string to this magnificent bow – Benji Bower, Will Bower and Phil King weaving a wonderful sonic tapestry and Melanie Marshall’s bluesy vocals an additional treat, especially in the unexpectedly witty moment when Jane realises her feelings for Rochester and the strains of ‘Mad About the Boy’ strike up, sung by Marshall who just happens to be playing the mad first wife Bertha. Michael Vale’s striking set design allows for the flexibility needed for this sense of play to really take root and all in all, it makes for a considerably accomplished achievement. Now bring it to London and supplant some of this Coward.