Jane Eyre @ Trafalgar Studios, London

cast list
Monica Dolan
James Clyde
Myriam Acharki
Octavia Walters
Joan Blackham
Sarah Ball
John Lightbody
Philip Rham

directed by
Polly Teale
Shared Experience’s emotive and energetic production of Charlotte Bronte’s most well known novel was first performed in 1997.

Since then the company have gone on to produce After Mrs Rochester, a play based both on the life of author Jean Rhys and on her semi-prequel to Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, and Bronte, a play about Charlotte’s own life and those of her creative siblings. All three productions were written and directed by Shared Experience’s artistic director Polly Teale, and now the first instalment in this loose trilogy, this clear labour of love, returns to the West End for a three month run at the Trafalgar Studios.

It’s quite a feat, cramming a novel such as Jane Eyre onto the stage, even into a three hour production, but, in the main, Teale pulls it off, leaving very little out. Having said that, Jane’s childhood is tackled at a fair sprint; Helen Burns is barely introduced as a character before she withers away from tuberculosis. The staging is kept simple, with few props and a minimal yet atmospheric set (a dark staircase leading to an attic room, a backdrop of stormy sky). There’s something of the rehearsal room to the resulting stripped-down space.

Teale’s main, and defining, device is the constant onstage presence of Bertha Mason, played by Myriam Archarki, moaning and rolling in the attic, and the suggestion that she and Jane are not dissimilar in spirit, that Bertha represents the passion that Jane has had to suppress in order to survive as a plain but intelligent woman in Victorian society. It’s hardly an unfamiliar reading of Jane Eyre but it’s well-presented, with Teale playing up the parallels between the two women and having Archarki, on more than one occasion, act as an embodiment of Jane’s subconscious desires.

The incessant animalistic wailing of the imprisoned Bertha does however grow a little tedious as the play proceeds and some elements of the staging look a little tired now, having seen them reiterated in After Mrs Rochester

Monica Dolan makes a compelling Jane. Quick-witted and strong-minded, her passionate, wilful heart concealed only very thinly. Her Jane is perhaps a little to self-assured but it’s an engrossing and admirable performance; Dolan only struggles during the scenes of Jane’s childhood – this is a production that requires a number of its cast to play children and, in some cases, animals, and some pull it off with more success than others. (Quite how John Lightbody stays on the right side of absurd when playing Rochester’s loyal pup Pilot is beyond me, but he does).

James Clyde makes a credible Rochester, requisitely shaggy and caddish. His Rochester is not as tortured and intense as some might be tempted to make him, he is simply a man who has made some fairly grievous mistakes in his life but is at least trying to make things right.

How you respond to this production will ultimately come down to your fondness for the novel. Jane Eyre obsessives may well fret over certain omissions and additions. But crucially, Polly Teale’s production, while adding an overt psychoanalytical element to the narrative, does not neglect the romance of the novel. Jane Eyre is a big, sweeping love story – transcending class, convention and at one point even touching on the supernatural. On that level this production does not disappoint.

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