Preconceptions about a Jane Eyre theatrical performance are inevitable. Bronte’s morbid novel, permeated with oppression, abandonment, loss and tragic romance, is almost a rite of passage in the British education system; a classic Victorian introduction into life’s most acute and painful lessons. You’d be forgiven for imagining a period piece – large bustles, top hats and sets to rival a staging of Oliver! But whilst Sally Cookson’s appropriation for the Bristol Old Vic, now reinterpreted for the National Theatre, remains thematically faithful to the literary original, her non-naturalistic staging and cross-genre musical score make this production anything but traditional.

Photography by Manuel Harlan

Photography by Manuel HarlanA sparse set consisting solely of wooden structures, ramps and ladders allows a fluidity to the actors’ movements; the small ensemble can quickly evolve from the form of a steam engine to a representation of Jane’s conscious, mirroring her every move and thought. This adaptability also aids the actors’ characteristic evolutions; Lauren Elphinstone, for example, transforms from Jane’s childhood friend Helen Burns, to Rochester’s ward Adele, to St John Rivers with ease. The aesthetic modesty of Cookson’s staging wonderfully reflects Jane’s life, filled with emptiness and oppressively ‘plain’, but it is also distinctly modern. Therefore simplistic representations are not just forgiven, but valued by a contemporary audience. The destruction by fire of Thornfield is conveyed merely by controlled pyrotechnics and scattered confetti; with every element stripped back, the smallest visual effects have the power to be hugely evocative. This provocation of emotion is significantly propelled by the play’s musical offerings. Melanie Marshall as Bertha roams the stage belting out songs as diverse as Dinah Washington’s Mad About the Boy and Gnarles Barkley’s Crazy, adding another modern dynamic to the production, whilst tunefully reflecting the storyline.

Photography Manuel Harlan

Photography Manuel Harlan


Much has been made, in the literature surrounding this production, of Cookson’s departure from Bronte’s love story, and emphasis instead on Jane’s defiance in the face of human suffering. Whilst Madeleine Worrall effectively portrays a protagonist who is angry, lonely and filled with self-conviction, this in fact acts as the catalyst for, and not replacement of, the deeply emotional union of Jane and Mr Rochester at the play’s close. If the dramatic elements of this production are geared to make the audience focus more on Jane’s journey of self-discovery than her love life, then this ‘modern’ interpretation of the novel is undermined by the passionate and ardent romance, portrayed with conviction by both Worrell and Felix Hayes at Rochester. It is this earnestness, however, that renders the romantic climax of the play deeply moving, and (I confess), a little tear-jerking. So If you’re looking to the National’s latest offering for a contemporary version of a traditional literary character, then you’ll have to wait a while longer. But if you’re after a beautiful and honest love story performed in a truly modern way, then Jane Eyre is a true winner.

Jane Eyre at the National Theatre until January 2016