A great feat of National Theatre Live’s recordings is their variety; from the hotly anticipated Cumberbatch-starring Hamlet to Of Mice and Men from across the pond. On Monday night, at Colwyn Bay’s Theatre Colwyn, was a screening of Jane Eyre – recorded from a performance at the National Theatre itself. The avant-garde nature of the production yet again brings something fresh to the series of screenings.
The experimental set comprised of a bare stage featuring a giant playground climbing-frame, minus the slides and monkey-bars, made of wood. Or at least it seemed so at first glance. This frame, with one path and numerous ladders leading to the top level – along with the surrounding stage area – became every scene you can imagine from Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel. This was aided by the semi-transparent curtains surrounding the stage, through which light was showered, of all luminosity and colour, taking us to the dreaded “red room” of Jane’s childhood, through the dank rooms of Lowood school, and the gothic halls of Thornfield Hall. The frame was also used handily as a prop – Rochester climbed a ladder to emulate the stirrups on a horse in an outdoors scene. There was a trap door at the front of the stage, which was only ever opened for an actor to walk down after their character died. It was a nicely chilling touch.
The sound and music were the most unconventional – even more likely to upset Bronte purists than the expressionistic stage design. We had traditional music from the integrated band, whose members sometimes became minor characters – adding musical tension, humour and sadness. Some of the sound effects were conventional too, such as the tweeting of birds. Yet the singing (yes, singing) was the most confusing. A woman occasionally appeared on stage in between scenes, anachronistically singing numbers like Mad About the Boy and Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy – can you guess the character she turned out to be? While the choice of songs seemed flippant and jokey, the gravitas of the story was, arguably, saved by the style in which she sang them. It wasn’t poppy or upbeat, but solemn. It’s hard to imagine such tunes enhancing Bronte’s tale, but in a warped way they did.
Despite performers playing multiple parts, and a few instances of gender-crossing, the acting was relatively straight-laced. Laura Elphinstone was spectacular. She somehow managed to portray Helen Burns, Adele Varens, Grace Pool, and John Rivers without us thinking twice about it – she fitted into every role perfectly, with unquestionable Geordie, broad Yorkshire, French and Irish accents. Yet the most impressive actor played just one character; Madeleine Worrall as Ms Eyre. The first sounds we heard were the squeals of a baby – this was Worrall as a new-born Jane. She continued to play the character through childhood, right until the end. Two things could have gone wrong here. The traits of child-Jane could have been forgotten, and an entirely new character could have been born with the transition to adulthood. On the other hand, Worrall could have breathed too much of the kid into the grown-up (or indeed vice versa). Luckily neither occurred, and she managed to charmingly portray the strengths and weaknesses of Bronte’s most famous character at two points in her life.
This production was intended as a two-parter, but we witnessed a shortened version. It would be interesting to see what was changed and removed, but this performance was so satisfying it’s hard to care. Director Sally Cookson clearly has a soft spot for the source material; very rarely is new life breathed into worlds we think we know so well.