The year for the National Theatre so far has been beset by the dramas over the dramas on its programme – depending on your viewpoint, it either doesn't contain enough classics or it has far too many revivals; it's too risk averse or it includes too much theatrical pretension for a venue with inclusivity at its heart. The return of the Bristol Old Vic’s devised interpretation of Bronte’s Jane Eyre seems like it must offer a brief respite from this chatter, being a surefire crowd pleaser that will make everyone happy as it's come back to the National as part of a long-running UK tour, bursting with critical acclaim. Yet the overall impact of this production is so ineffective as to make you wonder if these critics saw a different show to the one here – or to question how attuned their acclaim is to the swathes of the paying audience who decided not to return after managing to sit through the mind-numbingly dull two hours of the first act.
What the execution may be lacking, the effort and utter conviction of those involved is clear
It turns the tale of Eyre into a “Life Story” of positive female attitude, played on a stage filled with plain, unmoving timber and scaffold, by a multi-skilled small cast of ten; one of whom is a woman with an ethereal presence and powerful singing voice, Melanie Marshall, who spends much of her time appearing from nowhere and without warning to give a rendition of some classic lament. With such obvious signifiers from the outset that this is ‘intelligent theatre done by intelligent people', it deserves a good response if it were a piece produced by an end of year Drama School troupe. But I can only assume that whatever it was that created such cheers for the original is now just the bare bones of an idea with little more meat to it than over worn, textbook performance art cliché, devoid of characterisation, empathy or truth.
What it has in bucketloads is a pretentious pomposity reminiscent of Salome – but without the balls to do something that makes an audience care. At least with Salome, it was difficult to say you had ever seen anything like it before (even if you may never want to again). The same can’t be said here as it seems to work through the checklist of clever theatrical allusory devices. From the aforementioned, ‘easily tourable' planks of wood that make ‘everywhere, nowhere’ settings that the performers can - and do - continuously walk around and around, and over and under. To the cast acting, singing and playing the musical instruments, remaining onstage at all times and slipping through roles with little more than a new smock top. The common looks into the distance for anguish... The making of the sounds and movements of a train, to be... a train... An actor playing the role of a dog by slapping his leg with a truncheon, sticking his tongue out and gasping a lot. The last one gets a lot of laughs, which also acts as a way to wake some members of the audience.
It feels like it was such a good idea on paper - Jane Eyre wasn’t a weak woman but one whose desire to be free caused her to struggle against the role society expected her to play. But it’s an idea that is never quite brought to life with anything unexpected or thrilling. At one point, Jane sews with another woman and looks dissatisfied a lot. At several other times, we see her torment with her inner demons – we literally see it as the other actors speak to her as her conscience. And she is driven wild by the power that love can have – which is made clear as the singing lady hovers and sings Mad About The Boy. She sings it well. And it hints at a dark side to her character coming through. But unless you don't go to the theatre that often. none of that should surprise you.
What the execution may be lacking, the effort and utter conviction of those involved is clear, rarely deviating from a particular speech rhythm or explicitly choreographed move, such is their belief unswerving. The small cast – including Nadia Clifford as the drearingly earnest monotone Jane and Tim Delap as the thigh-slapping, qausi-pantomime villain Rochester – play more ages, genders, animals, vehicles and buildings than is possible to keep up with to try and fill the epic timespan of the Bronte book. But somehow this shared conviction leads to nothing you haven't seen before, all done with a shared delivery, movement, expression and use of metaphor that quickly leads to a lack of surprise. After over three hours of watching, you may feel like you have sat through something which had a lot less impact, created by a lot less people and performed for a much smaller audience. You may also find it difficult to leave having less interest.