Reviewed by on    All the world's a stage  

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Photo from the site of  Front Row Centre.

The National Theatre of London’s adaptation of Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre that reached us live by satellite recently was the result of a collective effort on the part of all the actors, so we were told during interviews conducted during the intermission.  Ultimately, it was  Sally Cookson who imposed the final directorial choices,  intent on emphasizing the strength of this legendary heroine, who survived çruel  treatment at the hands of her “step” family .

The play opens with the birth of little Jane who is passed on to her Aunt  upon the death of her uncle and from that point on, much attention is focussed on  the aggression and meanness to which she was subjected as a young girl. Madeleine Worrall as Jane Eyre in this early portion of the play purses her lips, squints, tightens her facial muscles and shows us what a tough little creature she is becoming  as she swallows the insults, the taunting, and  vicious behaviour of her cousins and aunt who toss her off  though she were some filthy Cinderella. The fable becomes an  adult horror story  that allows our heroine to rise out of the emotional rubble and establish her own strong presence as a mature woman.

 

This physically vibrant version of Bronte’s novel ,  transforms description into  movement and spatial  manoeuvering as  director Sally Cookson’s breathless  choreography  has the  actors rushing across  portions of Michael Vale’ s  constructivist influenced  set, climbing ladders , running up and down  various platforms,   slipping into the shadows of the lower spaces that appear under the open floors of the different areas of the scenography, and collapsing exhausted in a heap.  At one point, Jane even climbs up over the imaginary roof and the illusion of her  possibly  jumping off the third floor in despair, is almost perfect, thanks to the lighting and the movement of the stage that slowly lowers the whole set  as the body of the  actress is elevated into the sky.

This is an excellent illustration of the way a work of literature is transformed by the conventions of the stage.  Some narrative  details are eliminated  but new elements  introduce new contemporary meaning  such as the on stage musicians, thrust  to the back of the set,  hidden in the shadows, adding  various beats, percussion instruments, jazz, contemporary mood music and well as lyrical  and even operatic  moments, whenever the atmosphere requires such  sounds.  Take for example the  scenes where Jane drives away in a horse drawn carriage as the percussion beats out the hooves of the animals while  the actors  jump like galloping horses  to create a feel of speed and desperation, creating  a concrete sense of fear tapped out by the rhythmic excitement that  intervenes at the right moments. The  play  appears, in fact to be conceived  more as a  film scenario than as a written work   because of its oral and physical components that move us away from the novel and take over the stage at various moments of the production.

Later,  as  the mature Jane arrives at the home of the strangely elusive and uncomfortably brooding Mr. Rochester, the tone shifts, the rhythms change, darkness descends on the set, the members of the household appear on that long ramp, barely moving, until Rochester (Felix Hayes) makes his appearance, something like the seductive but brooding demonic romantic hero  who appears out of nowhere to question  this new woman who has come into his household and upset its rhythm.  But here,  new rhythms appear. His household is occupied by  disturbed people, his young ward comes flitting around in fits of nervous hysteria  and strange screaming and laughing sounds echo through the halls as the servants cringe in silence in the background.  The soundscape takes on a particularly important meaning here as  Rochester’s  feelings for Jane develop and his terrible secret which he does not dare to explain, is finally revealed . That was a great moment of acting that turned this strange and secretive individual into a deeply suffering human being.

Bertha Mason the  Jamaican wife, an unusual representation of the legendary “Madwoman  who is kept locked in the attic,” , suddenly becomes  an uncanny  and overwhelming  presence  as her strong soprano voice  projects  the  heightened emotions of a creature from   another performance mode.   She  emerges as  the distraught   heroine of  an  opera with the atonal sounds of a Benjamin Britten composition, ready to kill or die for her love. This alienates her from the others  but it also indicates how the stage  took advantage of her physical presence by giving her  a beautiful voice in order to make us understand how she   overwhelmed  Rochester and was able to charm him as a young man.

However apart from Melanie Marshal’s  singing,  the other leading roles are all spoken.   Rochester and Jane’s   final union becomes a most passionate  moment  that  almost obliterates the physicality of the earlier  parts of the performance and even corresponds to the  blazing ending that destroys  Rochester’s  dwelling.  In that sense most of the important narrative moments in the book are represented in some way by this adaptation but because this is not a naturalistic stage esthetic, most of the  elements of the set became signs of what churns around deeply within  the psyche of these creatures .  Even when they were rushing around and  physically over exerting themselves ,   this use of the body became the  expression of underlying impulses that  revealed more than one might want to admit. That was a most interesting thing about this staging. .

Recently at the University of Ottawa, André Perrier attempted a similar exercise with Les Reines, an interesting  adaptation of several  Shakespearean plays by Quebec playwright  Normand Chaurette . His rereading of Richard III among other texts,  featured the female characters of the  royal household of the dying King Edward IV and the family of the Duchess of York who were all stunned by fear, anger,  hate and ambition before the very real prospect of  changes in family power relations about to take place when  Edward finally died.  Director Perrier  stated in the programme that the play was an example of his research  on the acting process where  his characters  had to  depend  on purely physical  forms of expression to  reveal their  psychic  impulses . Almost all  naturalistic expression was therefore denaturalised  in his  biomechanical actors except for one character who  became the symbol  of the “victim”, which could have been read as a  stereo type in such a feminist play, although the young actress presented it in such a way that highlighted the language and moved us deeply.   Nevertheless, .  Perrier did not quite succeed in his case but Sally Cookson from the National Theatre succeeded beautifully because her choices allowed her characters the freedom to evolve  according to their emotional needs that pure physicality did not quite  fulfill as they matured.    The result was a truly exceptional  scenario set out for the stage, one that did not  betray the novel , but rather  enhanced its possibilities.

Alvina Ruprecht

Ottawa. December 17, 2015