Is the sum worth its parts?
I went along to catch the first part of the two-part Jane Eyre which opened last night (previews) at the Bristol Old Vic.
Sally Cookson has translated the classic Bronte novel into a breathtaking mix of music, stomp, dance, lights, gags and, of course, drama.
A clever set design gives the sense of unending corridors, inter-connecting rooms, long driveways and upstairs and downstairs. Everything on stage is visible, there are no closed spaces, but that doesn’t lessen the atmosphere of secrecy and things hidden.
The first part deals with Jane’s (Madeleine Worrall) progression from baby through school and onto employment as a governess. She is spirited and even aggressive, but she knows that she wants more than what the world, in all its religion-veiled cruelty, currently offers her. She finds herself in the mysterious Thornfield Hall, taking charge of an annoying French girl (Laura Elphinstone) and finding herself drawn to the enigmatic Mr Rochester (Felix Hayes).
Bronte’s novel is lengthy with many, many parts, and the performance successfully gave a lot of information through small gestures, loud bangs, dramatic light changes and subtle touches to the scenery. For me, there was nothing subtle about the death descent, where characters who die escort themselves down below stage, but it was effective if slow.
The onstage music provided by a local folk group and led by Benji Bower was literally central – they take up the very midst of the stage, and often the musicians take on acting parts as well. I can’t remember sound being so important in the novel but it’s almost essential here, probably a way to convey Jane’s internal monologues. Stunning vocals from renowned singer Melanie Marshall and gorgeous sound design from Mike Beer made the night, for me, more of an aural experience than a performance. The audience was heavily directed by the sound, much like we are in films.
Still there were moments that dragged – is it so important that we are aware of time passing? – and some loud yawns from the audience around me. Often what feels right when improvising can and should be ruthlessly edited out later on without affecting the performance. A less confident hand might be forced to confine the whole show to 3 hours, but this is a talented ensemble and I think that they feel that they don’t want to take any shortcuts with this epic novel. I’ll have to wait until after watching the second part to decide if it was worth drawing it out over 6 hours.
The vibe in the foyer was good and everyone seemed very impressed. I did find the applause rather restrained at the end. I was hoping to be able to give Melanie Marshall and Madeleine Worrall a ‘bravo’ but there was no opportunity; just a polite clap, a quick bow and then the houselights came up.
I’ll be watching the second part on Thursday night and will then find out if the sum is worth its parts.