Theatre review: Jane Eyre

One of the greatest stories ever written; it's a phrase easily and often said, particularly of Charlotte Bronte's mighty first novel Jane Eyre. Yet if we ever need a reminder of what that phrase means, in terms of driving emotional energy, courage and depth, then we receive it in full in this tremendous and unforgettable stage version by director Sally Cookson and her company, first seen at Bristol Old Vic three years ago and at the National Theatre in London, and now on a UK-wide tour.

Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre *****

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

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It was the autumn of 1847, when Bronte’s story of a small, plain and impoverished girl with the heart of a lion, and a brain and spirit to match, burst out of the quiet parsonage at Haworth in Yorkshire to become a national bestseller; the year before Europe’s year of revolutions, driven by the same passionate belief in the fundamental equality of human beings, and their inborn right to strive for freedom and fulfilment, that inspired all the great radical spirits of the 19th century. From her earliest childhood, Jane rebels against the cruelties inflicted on her by her unkindly Aunt Reed (“unjust!”), and then by the pseudo-religious managers of Lowood, the bleak orphanage-cum-school where she receives an education. And even when she becomes a governess at beautiful Thornfield Hall, her restless spirit still yearns for more; until the master, Mr. Rochester, comes home, and she truly meets her match.

It is, of course, one of the great romances of all time, threaded through with a quest for truth and integrity as well as for passionate physical fulfilment; and on a great, simple scaffolding set by Michael Vale, superbly lit by Aideen Malone, it’s played out by Cookson’s company with a mixture of music, athleticism, flowing ensemble work and sheer passion that takes the breath away time and again, as we follow Nadia Clifford’s tiny, brilliant and indomitable Jane through her mighty journey. The show is haunted by a timeless sequence of songs of love and despair magnificently sung by Melanie Marshall, as Mr Rochester’s first, Caribbean wife, Bertha. And as Britain lurches towards a general election apparently dominated by many of the same dour, joyless and cruel attitudes that led Jane Eyre to her magnificent rebellion, it’s worth asking whether the sheer passion of this production doesn’t owe something to the sense that that driving 19th century belief in equal human worth is now in peril, and no longer setting our society on a steady path of progress, but gradually slipping beyond our reach.

*Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, final performances today; Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 5-10 June; His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 28 August until 2 September.