Here’s the thing about theater: It brings performers and spectators together in a mutual act of imagination – and the simpler the stage, the greater the imaginative act. The lush British costume dramas that come to our TV and movie screens are essentially Classics Illustrated versions of Dickens, Austen and the rest, replacing the mind’s eye of the reader with marvelously detailed technicolor images and leaving little to the imagination.
So the NT Live screening of Jane Eyre, coming to the Amherst Cinema this week from Britain’s National Theatre, is a surprise. In a mind’s-eye-popping production, Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 bildungsroman has been turned into an explosion of physical theater that the British press correctly hailed as “a tumultuous re-creation” and “a picture of exultant feminism.”
It was first seen last year as a two-part, four-and-a-half-hour marathon at the Bristol Old Vic, pared down to a svelte three hours for the London run. It’s staged on a series of bare platforms scaled by ladders and performed by a multitasking cast of ten. Devised collectively by the ensemble and director Sally Cookson, the piece has the feel of a spontaneous group storytelling session, with actors diving into multiple roles, creating characters out of thin air and scenes out of snatched-up objects.
Jane’s private thoughts are rendered by ensemble members who cluster around her in moments of stress or indecision. Free-floating window frames manipulated by the performers first represent the stifling captivity of young Jane’s early life and schooling, then go flying as she claims her liberty. The skeletal set and high platforms become, in the actors’ movements and the audience’s imagination, the walls, rooms and roof of Thornfield Hall, home of the prickly, troubled Mr. Rochester and scene of Jane’s tumultuous coming-of-age. A rare high-tech moment in this bare-bones staging comes when the house is set the house on fire and real flames leap up around the actors.
There’s a profusion of music, played by an onstage trio led by composer Benji Bower, from cinematic underscores to accompaniments for a variety of songs and snatches, some of them cheeky anachronisms. Singer Melanie Marshall – who is gradually revealed to be the spirit of Rochester’s crazed wife – drifts through the action, her mournful, almost operatic delivery giving a rather solemn air to numbers like Noël Coward’s “Mad About the Boy” – a double entendre reflecting both the wife’s and Jane’s unruly feelings for the lord of the manor.
Oddly, the National’s own publicity for this “story of the trailblazing Jane” reads more like a book-jacket blurb than a preview of trailblazing theater. With barely a nod to “this bold and dynamic production,” it goes on to a breathless outline of “one woman’s fight for freedom and fulfilment on her own terms [as] the 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.”
In a departure from many NT Live productions, you won’t see many familiar faces in this one, partly because it’s such a communal piece instead of a star vehicle. The title role is played by Madeleine Worrall, like her character no classic beauty but, like her character, a fervent, vigorous spirit with a feisty intensity that blows away any dust that may have settled on your image of Brontë’s Victorian romance.
At the Amherst Cinema, Tuesday Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. & Saturday Dec. 12 at 1 p.m. Also at the Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, Dec. 27, and the Latchis, Brattleboro, Jan. 23 2016.
Photo by Tristram Kenton
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