Sally Cookson’s devised adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece ‘Jane Eyre’ has been one of the big regional theatre success stories of the last few years. After debuting to tumultuous acclaim as a two-part epic at the Bristol Old Vic in 2014, it transferred to the National Theatre as a single, three-hour play the following year. Now it’s back with a new cast and a second run at the Lyttelton as the final destination of its UK tour.
And it still holds up. If Cookson’s lo-fi, folk band-augmented take on the seminal 1847 novel has its twee moments, there are also sprinklings of improvised magic and moments of pure, shrieking punk rock rage. It’s also simply a remarkable feat to credibly condense the novel into so short a time.
What really holds it together is Nadia Clifford as Jane. She was superb in Alistair McDowall’s game-changing postmodern horror ‘Pomona’ a few years back, and it’s great to see her bagging such a big role. Small, steely and very northern, she is the antithesis of the BBC costume drama heroine, and yet absolutely dead right for the role. Jane lives a hard life, but Clifford shows us that her inherent virtue doesn’t come from maidenly modesty, but a flinty, diamond-hard integrity shaped by the dying words of a school friend.
Less successful is Tim Delap as Rochester, the wealthy gentleman with the troubled past who falls for Jane, his governess. He feels like a humourless, bombastic, Byronic creature next to Clifford’s earthy Jane and there is, unfortunately, zero chemistry between the two (in part a hazard of recasting a play created by the original cast, I guess).
The character and treatment of Rochester’s enigmatic first wife has been subject to considerable debate and analysis in the postcolonial era. There are some smart but brief nods to this via the haunting presence of Melanie Marshall – the only returning cast-member – as the first Mrs Rochester, who we see as a poised woman of colour, not the howling creature described in the novel. But Cookson has understandably picked her battles, and this is essentially a reading of ‘Jane Eyre’ as a feminist narrative, not a postcolonial one.
There’s something intrinsically quixotic about adapting the great Victorian novels, but Cookson has done better than most, and if ‘Jane Eyre’ has probably lost something in the recasting, the terrific Clifford is enough to bring it home with conviction.