National Theatre at Home – “Jane Eyre” during global lockdown by Pavel Gulin Zrnic

National Theatre at Home – “Jane Eyre” during global lockdown by Pavel Gulin Zrnic

 Coronavirus has significantly impacted theatres as they were on the frontline when all the public gatherings were banned which happened even before the whole country went on the complete lockdown. Many young performers within Stamford Endowed Schools including myself were directly affected by the ban as we were not allowed to perform the school production of Legally Blonde for five constituent nights as planned. Therefore what was planned to be the dress rehearsal turned out to be our final show and it achieved huge success as many families managed to come and see it on the last minute call. Although people cannot visit theatres now, some of the theatre companies decided to make their productions accessible to people online in order to cheer up all the theatre-lovers during this long and tough period. Therefore although I am spending my lockdown in Croatia, I had a special opportunity to see a thrilling production of Jane Eyre streamed by the National Theatre on Thursday, 9th of April 2020.

Jane Eyre is a National Theatre production made in collaboration with Bristol Old Vic Theatre, directed by Sally Cookson and premiered live in 2014/2015. It is based on the same name novel written by Charlotte Brontë in the mid 19the century. When I saw the online production, I was immediately blown away with how clever, yet intriguing the adaptation of this complex novel was made for the stage. One of the reasons for such a gripping production is that it was devised by the group of professional actors under direction of Sally Cookson who all worked together to put a prose novel on the stage while preserving its key themes. The story follows the life of Jane Eyre from the day when she was born as she grows up in an independent woman of strong moral values and integrity while questioning social conditions of the Victorian era. Jane was exposed to family violence in her childhood, and then sent to educational institution for orphaned children where, as a grown-up, she started to work as a teacher. She sought more freedom so she got employed as a governess in one wealthy household where she met Mr Rochester with whom she eventually fell in love and found inner peace.

The production successfully portrayed Jane Eyre’s character development as it emphasised life events which impacted it the most. One of them is the very beginning of her life; her childhood which was purposefully adapted for the stage to highlight the violence and injustice she experienced while living with her aunt and cousins as both of her parents died very early. Madeleine Worrall, playing the protagonist – Jane Eyre, employed her sophisticated physical skills which lively depicted fearful, yet bold Jane as a child who was raised up without any love and support from her family. Worrall effectively used very abrupt head and arm movements to reflect some almost animal-like survival instincts present at Jane as she experienced family violence seen when her cousin aggressively hit her with the book. However, Worrall also made it very clear for the audience at the beginning that Jane was a strong character who fights against injustices when she boldly shouted at her aunt (Mrs Reed) “The very thought of you makes me sick“ while punctuating consonants which was against all the social norms of the Victorian society. It revealed Jane’s frustration as Worrall started to cry.

Furthermore, the production was very enjoyable to watch because although it was performed in a naturalistic style, it contained many non-naturalistic devices which helped to evoke particular messages. For instance, particularly effective moments were Jane’s journeys between different places which were always done in a similar way consisting of movement sections. Six actors including Worrall playing Jane were running in synchrony on the same spot centre-stage to represent people on the train passing through different local towns as they shouted station names. They all suddenly bent forwards in synchronised movement to show that the train hit the herd of sheep which looked very visually pleasing. However, every single actor within that group also had particular posture and intensity of movements which highlighted different people Jane saw on the train. Those big running sequences became a recurring motif as they were performed every time Jane travelled and therefore clearly showed physical journeys Jane made in an interesting way. However they had another purpose which was to portray the journey that took place inside of Jane’s head throughout her life which is one of the key themes of Brontë’s novel as it reflects Jane’s character development while she becomes an independent woman with clear idea of what she wants.

The production successfully highlighted the key themes of this story. One of them is orphaned children which grow up on their own, without family care. I think that Worrall’s meticulously choreographed costume changes which represented her different life stages reinforce that theme because they were all done on the stage in front of the audience; thus showing how an orphaned child grows up not only without care, but also without any privacy.

Another reason for such an interesting production is that Jane’s emotions, essential for the story, were reflected on the stage as the ensemble helped to enhance them. For instance, chorus represented ‘voices’ in Jane’s head at some points when she was confused or troubled. There were four actors stood around Worrall which said her inner thoughts and emotions aloud while adapted their physicality to what they were saying.

Important part of Jane’s life were years spent at Lowood – educational institution for orphaned children. In her direction of the play, Cookson payed close attention to emphasise the brutality of children institutions of the Victorian era. For instance, actors playing children at Lowood were scattered around the stage when they started shivering in unison which was followed by coughing to show that they were constantly freezing as there was a lack of hot water. Moreover, all the actors sharply said “Slap“ in choral speaking when someone would ask a question during the lessons, which was a recurring sound at Lowood; thus bringing the audience’s attention to the fact that children were physically punished with no reason in a powerful way. Once Jane finished her education at Lowood she got employed there as a teacher, but was not satisfied with it as she believed there was more to life than that. The production clearly emphasised Jane’s restless character which actively sought the change in order to get the most of her life. This was brilliantly shown every time Worrall looked with her eyes wide open through the window made of simple wooden frame held up by other actors while she was working at Lowood. It clearly showed that Jane was losing attention as Worrall almost zoned out every time she looked out because she realised how many new possibilities there were in the world. It was particularly effective when Worrall strongly pushed out a couple of frames pressed up next to each other held by other actors. There was a sudden change in the lighting, everything became brighter and sounds from nature such as birdsong emerged as Worrall slowly said “Those blue peaks“ punctuating every word with passion while curving her lips in a slight smile and looking to the distance. Worrall then said “ I must have liberty and if I cannot have liberty than I must have change“ which successfully showed this as one of the pivotal points of her life because she decided that she had to undertake new steps in order to achieve self-fulfilment. Moreover, those powerful words of Jane raise issues of gender stereotypes because Jane showed that she was not satisfied with the passive way of her life which was required from the 19th century women. Therefore this reinforced Jane as a larger-than-life character because she actively fought against unfair social norms which pressurised her.

The production successfully highlighted the key themes of this story. One of them is orphaned children which grow up on their own, without family care. I think that Worrall’s meticulously choreographed costume changes which represented her different life stages reinforce that theme because they were all done on the stage in front of the audience; thus showing how an orphaned child grows up not only without care, but also without any privacy.

Another reason for such an interesting production is that Jane’s emotions, essential for the story, were reflected on the stage as the ensemble helped to enhance them. For instance, chorus represented ‘voices’ in Jane’s head at some points when she was confused or troubled. There were four actors stood around Worrall which said her inner thoughts and emotions aloud while adapted their physicality to what they were saying.

Important part of Jane’s life were years spent at Lowood – educational institution for orphaned children. In her direction of the play, Cookson payed close attention to emphasise the brutality of children institutions of the Victorian era. For instance, actors playing children at Lowood were scattered around the stage when they started shivering in unison which was followed by coughing to show that they were constantly freezing as there was a lack of hot water. Moreover, all the actors sharply said “Slap“ in choral speaking when someone would ask a question during the lessons, which was a recurring sound at Lowood; thus bringing the audience’s attention to the fact that children were physically punished with no reason in a powerful way. Once Jane finished her education at Lowood she got employed there as a teacher, but was not satisfied with it as she believed there was more to life than that. The production clearly emphasised Jane’s restless character which actively sought the change in order to get the most of her life. This was brilliantly shown every time Worrall looked with her eyes wide open through the window made of simple wooden frame held up by other actors while she was working at Lowood. It clearly showed that Jane was losing attention as Worrall almost zoned out every time she looked out because she realised how many new possibilities there were in the world. It was particularly effective when Worrall strongly pushed out a couple of frames pressed up next to each other held by other actors. There was a sudden change in the lighting, everything became brighter and sounds from nature such as birdsong emerged as Worrall slowly said “Those blue peaks“ punctuating every word with passion while curving her lips in a slight smile and looking to the distance. Worrall then said “ I must have liberty and if I cannot have liberty than I must have change“ which successfully showed this as one of the pivotal points of her life because she decided that she had to undertake new steps in order to achieve self-fulfilment. Moreover, those powerful words of Jane raise issues of gender stereotypes because Jane showed that she was not satisfied with the passive way of her life which was required from the 19th century women. Therefore this reinforced Jane as a larger-than-life character because she actively fought against unfair social norms which pressurised her.

When Jane, played by Worrall, moved to the manor of Thornthorpe Hall and became a governess, she met Mr Rochester to whom she gradually fell in love and after a long period they got together. Felix Hayes perfectly performed Mr Rochester, a man who takes self-hatred on the world around him as he employed very deep shrill voice and tough movements. Mr Rochester’s faithful companion is a dog Pilot, played by Craig Edwards who amusingly performed dog’s hopping, laying around and barking which gave additional liveliness to the play. At the end, I particularly enjoyed the cyclic nature of the play as it began and ended with the same line “It’s a girl“, at the beginning referring to Jane’s birth and at the end displaying the birth of Jane’s daughter.

In my opinion the production of Jane Eyre was a tremendous success as all the segments of this production including acting, music, movement and costumes worked closely together to tell the moving story of Jane Eyre’s life while underlining key themes, yet making it interesting for the audience. The force of Jane Eyre embodied in very talented Madeleine Worrall teaches us not to give up easily and motivates us to keep seeking happiness and self-fulfilment.