Jane Eyre, National Theatre Live on YouTube, stage review: ‘Risk-taking spin on a Brontë classic’

The set ‘looks more like a jungle gym’ than something from the 19th century.
Photograph: Manuel Harlan

So, this is a new experience! Sat in the royal box (my sofa) with my fellow audience members (my dog) ready for National Theatre Live’s 2017 production of Jane Eyre (on YouTube).

Theatre from your couch isn’t all that bad. I tuck into a bag of crisps and a large gin and tonic without death stares from surrounding humans – the dog does look a little disappointed, admittedly. And off we go!

Charlotte Brontë’s novel has always been a personal favourite. Rocketing between love of Ruth Wilson’s Jane in the BBC series to disappointment at Mia Wasikowska’s big-screen depiction, this story of passion resonates keenly.

Now Madeleine Worrall tries her hand at the deeply complex heroine, and what a hand it is. Almost constantly in a state of seething emotion (so Jane), the stage is very much hers, and considering the age range required the task is impressive.

Sally Cookson’s clever idea to have Jane’s battle with her thoughts vocalised by the chorus members is inspired. This moral dialogue made physical allows Worrall to wrestle with her demons capturing the inner voice of the novel well.

The shell in which this performance rests is interesting. It takes risks, some of them don’t work, yet others land both feet on the other bank.

Madeleine Worrall ‘seethes with emotion’ as Jane. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

The story centres on orphan Jane, through a series of grim circumstances, her cruel aunt’s house, Lowood Academy and finally Thornfield Hall.

Take the set, looking more like a jungle gym this ramped, two-story frames of wood break up a lot of the classic proxemics we expect from the 19th century. Michael Vale’s climbing frame is fascinating to watch, but sadly for the task of grounding the action falls short.

This disconnect is too much of a stretch. The towers of Thornfield are not conjured up by the suspension of large black window frames, it just lacks the gothic broody and claustrophobia needed.

Nevertheless, the lack of set to rely on means much more is asked of the performers and the imagination of the creatives involved.

Aideen Malone’s lights are effective and beautiful.

Performers playing dogs with whips for tales, or the sections on the stagecoach where the performers jog while a background soundtrack calls out the names of passing towns are joyfully clever.

The on-stage orchestra underscore the piece energetically with a mixture of folk and modern music and complex soundscapes.

This leads me to one of my favourite elements of this production.

In a post-Wide Sargasso Sea world (Jean Rhys’s novel questioning the backstory of the controversial Bertha Mason), the approach to both main female characters must change.

Having Melanie Marshal playing Bertha, present on stage almost throughout (like Jane), singing in a forceful operatic voice and gliding into the narrative when needed, adds a bright detail to the piece.

A section where she sings Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’, in a full red period gown is transcendently good.

Ultimately the piece’s preoccupation with Jane’s thoughts, rather than her situation, is a nice realisation of this classic novel.

Sat with my dog curled up in my lap, I was affected by the challenges she faces and the cruelty of the world she is haunted by.

The story’s capacity for hope out of the ashes (literally and figuratively) is also very fitting for our current situation.

So, join me next Thursday at 7pm for another transformative trip to theatre land?

You can watch Jane Eyre on YouTube here