National Theatre at Home, Global

10/04/2020 - 17/04/2020

COVID-19 Lockdown Festival 2020

Production Details

The classic story of the trailblazing Jane is as inspiring as ever. This bold and dynamic production uncovers one woman’s fight for freedom and fulfilment on her own terms.

Jane Eyre’s spirited heroine faces life’s obstacles head-on, surviving poverty, injustice and the discovery of bitter betrayal before taking the ultimate decision to follow her heart.

This innovative reimagining of Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece is a collaboration between the National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic and is directed by Sally Cookson.

This filmed performance was given a BBFC rating of 12A and it contains some strong language.

GMT: From 9 April at 7pm to 16 April – but you’ll need to start watching before 4pm UK time on 16 April to ensure you see it all.
NZT: From 10 April at 6am to 17 April (before the next offering) – but you’ll need to start watching before 3am UK time on 17 April to ensure you see it all.
Running Time: 3 hours with a very short interval
Free on the National Theatre’s YouTube channel 
Watch on YouTube

Download the Cast List   

We’re all about experiencing theatre together.

At a time when many theatre fans around the world aren’t able to visit National Theatre Live venues or local theatres, we’re excited to bring you National Theatre at Home.

You will be able to watch some of the best British theatre from the comfort of your living room, via YouTube for free, with each title available for one week.

Thank you to all the amazing artists who have allowed us to share Jane Eyre in this way, during a time when many theatre fans aren’t able to visit their local theatre.

Audio described notes on the National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic production of Jane Eyre
An audio description of the settings, scenes and characters of the production
(MP3 23.9MB)

A transcript of the audio description of the settings, scenes and characters of the production
(Word docx)

An audio description of the background to the adaptation and production
(Track 2 MP3 7.7MB)

Theatre ,

3 hrs + a very short interval

Breathless and exciting

Review by Terry MacTavish 13th Apr 2020

Wow, a whirlwind of a production that lifts us up, spins us round and does not let us touch ground till the end. The very air on the stage must be disturbed by the wild rushing hither and thither of the frenzied cast of ten, their long skirts fluttering as they climb precarious ladders to bare wooden platforms. It certainly vibrates thrillingly to the music from the soul singer in red, whose identity gradually becomes clear, and the on-stage musicians. Even the pale curtains hung about the stage that reflect the light so beautifully, entrancing us with bold colour, shadows and silhouettes, seem to stir with life of their own.

The company’s unstinting commitment to this imaginative retelling of Jane Eyre is no doubt partly due to their being an intrinsic part of the devising process, under director Sally Cookson. “It’s messy and risky,” says Cookson. “You’ve got no script and you don’t know how it’s going to turn out.” But the material is so rich, Charlotte Bronte such a superb writer, for any century, and Jane such an iconic character, that it is no wonder the devisers have not been tempted to stray far from the text.

In a collaboration which allowed all the actors to offer their individual responses to the novel, the choice has been to emphasise the strikingly contemporary feel of Jane’s rebellion against the circumscribed life of a woman in nineteenth century England. The orphaned Jane is up against it from birth, rejected by a cruel aunt, sent to a so-called Christian boarding school where the girls are treated appallingly, and when she has at last found refuge at Thornfield Hall, betrayed by the Master she fervently loves.  Gender, status, wealth, even her youth are all against her, yet she can cry out to her employer, a rich, powerful, clever man twice her age, “I have as much soul as you, and full as much heart! I am a free human being with an independent will!”

It is a matter for rejoicing that the cast does not obsess, as so many films have done, over the romantic aspects of the tale. Jane Eyre is so much more than the progenitor of innumerable Mills and Boon love stories. What Jane demands is not fairy-tale romance but honesty: “I love you too well to flatter you. Do not flatter me,” and equality: to talk “face to face with what I most delight in – an original, vigorous, expanded mind.” This is no Cinderella story: it is she who has the strength to save him. (Though when Rochester claims Jane as his salvation, I am uncomfortably reminded of the current t-shirt slogan: ‘She is not your rehab’!)

So how to stage Jane’s journey not to wedding bells, but to independence and freedom, on this skeletal set, with blue-grey gowns that are symbolic rather than historically accurate? The free-flowing Brechtian style, non-naturalistic and aggressively physical, with most actors playing multiple roles and changes of costume happening on stage, will not be unfamiliar to New Zealanders.  Brilliant Red Leap Theatre has quite recently brought similar skills to Owls Do Cry. Indeed, the recurring motif as Jane moves from one state to another is just like the opening of Meryn Thompson’s Children of the Poor – the actors in tight formation, jogging desperately on the spot.

Technical support is impressive, with startling effects of flame and smoke, the trapdoor spookily used to indicate descent into the grave as various characters die off, window frames thrust open or shut, and hand-held lights to create the eerie atmosphere of a great house. The whole cast has tremendous assurance and energy, with impressive commitment not just to their named parts (which include Pilot the dog!) but to the ensemble, while the musicians under Benjie Bower enhance each scene with skill and subtlety.

It is years since I reviewed Polly Teale’s adaptation of Jane Eyre, so excitingly directed at the Fortune by David Lawrence, which centred on the brilliant conceit of Bertha, the madwoman in the attic, actually being Jane’s repressed alter ego, passionate and untamed.* That cast too worked wonderfully as an ensemble, the scene for instance of those who bypass Jane in the driving rain, as she stumbles away from Thornfield, still vivid in my mind.

Among the many such scenes created with almost too much speed by the cast of this Jane Eyre, I am most struck by the pitiful orphans at Lowood Institution. With mime and music, and lighting making hands glow as they are stretched to the small fire, the cold and hunger and cruelty they endure is hideously plain to see. I am glad its awfulness is not glossed over. When I lived in Yorkshire, I was constantly drawn to Cowan Bridge, the actual school where Charlotte and her sisters boarded, and where two of them died. A prettier place in summer cannot be imagined, nor one more miserable in an 1820s winter.

In drab pinafores and ugly caps, these actors are perfect as the crushed schoolgirls – it does not even seem odd that a couple have beards – and Helen Burns, based on Charlotte’s beloved sister Maria, is allowed to be more than implausibly saintly. Headmistress Miss Temple does not appear, though, and this seems a loss, as she teaches Jane the patience and control required to balance her fiery passions, and is the reason Jane becomes a teacher, staying on at Lowood years longer than she need. However, her profession, which was also Bronte’s, is treated seriously, though I do blink a bit when Jane reads Dickens to the country school children!

The cast is accomplished in the named roles too, Felix Hayes as Rochester suitably abrupt and rude, certainly less suave than Laurence Olivier in the classic movie! I enjoy the contradictory doubling of horrid Aunt Reed and kindly housekeeper Mrs Fairfax (Maggie Tagney) but prefer Laura Elphinstone‘s chilly St John Rivers to her rather manic Adele.

But it is Madeleine Worrall as Jane who is truly amazing. Such courage – this role is physically and emotionally gruelling, and it is sometimes worrying to see her scramble up ladders at breakneck speed.  But she is agile and stocky, and her utterance has a vehement directness that suits well. “You think I can do without one bit of love or kindness, but I cannot live so!”  Worrall is a supremely naturalistic actor, giving an all-too-realistic sniff and quick wipe of the nose in what is usually played as a sentimentally romantic moment, and appearing genuinely unself-conscious.

The most curious interpretation is that of Bertha – not played as the gothic horror madwoman in the attic, more beast than human, but a dignified woman in a red gown (Melanie Marshall) who sings throughout with piercing sweetness, mostly melancholy original ballads, but including, daringly, Crazy! It seems strange to dispense with much that is crucial to the plot, but I do not miss the melodrama, there is enough wild passion in Jane herself. There is also justification for the slight alteration made to the ending, which is rewarded by a satisfied murmur from the audience.

As a stage production Jane Eyre is breathless and exciting, rarely does the whirlwind slacken, but those for whom the book itself is sacred may mourn some omissions. The focus on Jane’s passionate rebellious nature, her nascent feminism and burning need for justice sweeps the story along, but I miss the nurturing tenderness that Bronte makes clear at the start, writing of Jane’s motherly devotion to her shabby doll. “Human beings must have something to love. With what absurd sincerity I doted on this little toy, half-fancying it alive and capable of sensation.” When it was folded warm in her nightgown, “I was comparatively happy, believing it to be happy likewise.”

This play was originally performed in two parts, which no doubt meant far more of the book could be included. But Charlotte Bronte has written a work of such genius that nothing compares with reading it for yourself. As this intelligent company has realised, Jane herself is for all time, a woman of such feeling, such frankness, such dignity. The opening pages of Chapter 12 alone could change lives. “Millions are in silent revolt against their lot… Women suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would do.” Read it in your bubble.

Jane’s frustration, her fierce determination not to be pent up physically or emotionally, will find an echo in our current lock-down situation. Such times to be living through. I am so proud of the new ways our Arts Community has found to share theatre through technology. But I want to cheer loudly when Director Cookson declares in an interview, ‘I’ve got this burning need to be part of a big group of people standing together on a stage, singing a song or telling a story.”

“Or dancing!” would have added my mother Shona Dunlop, who in 1988 was inspired by the Brontës to choreograph Between Two Fires. How triumphant Shona would have been that this very day, the 12th April, which would have been her 100th birthday, our Government under Jacinda Ardern has announced an emergency package to help all the artists of NZ survive and get back on those stages! Meantime, at least we have the whirlwind of the web to ride.

Watch on YouTube
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*It is a mystery to me why we have seen so many interpretations of Jane Eyre but none that I can recall of Villette, apart from a bizarre sci-fi version for CB’s 200th birthday. Villette is an even more moving psychological study of a woman brought to mental collapse by the cruel restrictions of her world, based on CB’s own experience of unrequited love and mental breakdown as a governess in Brussels. You can be more desperately isolated in one of the most brilliant cities of Europe than in the wilds of Yorkshire. 


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