Theatre Review: Jane Eyre, Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre

A newly-realised adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Victorian romance is invigorating and irresistible

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Jane Eyre at the National Theatre, devised by the Company from the novel by Charlotte Bronte

 

Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel can’t be an easy beast to tame for the stage. You have to grapple with the fact that everyone knows at least the outline of Jane Eyre (mad woman, attic, THAT wedding scene, fire) and, while the novel is so multi layered, so stuffed with action, it’s Jane’s internal monologues that are the book’s backbone. How do you bring a freshness to such a well-known tale while capturing Jane’s outward fierceness and inner delicacy?

Like this it would seem. This co-produced National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic adaptation of Jane Eyre has managed to harness the author’s – and the protagonist’s – energy and power and bring a fresh, original angle to this well-loved story that doesn’t diminish the source material.

The production was originally devised by the company without a script; improvised by the cast and then tamed by dramaturg Mike Akers. This fluidity and lack of constraint, wonderfully directed by Sally Cookson, really shines through in this production and lends it so much of its magic.

Akers, Cookson, a fearlessly talented and committed cast and a beautiful score by Benji Bower capture Brontë’s magic and Jane’s restless spirit – no narrative net or awkward theatrics ensnare Madeleine Worrall’s Jane as we follow her from a squawking baby to a contented mother. The whole production seems to spin around Jane’s musings near the beginning of her time at Thornfield: “It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.”

I loved the restlessness of this Jane Eyre, the small company, multitasking in several roles, are rarely off stage (in Worrall’s case, never). Jane Eyre is a force of nature, brave and self-possessed, her self-awareness so complete that she’s beyond shocking with the truth. Worrall excelled in the part, giving Jane that fierce determination and vulnerability that Rochester and the reader fall in love with. Her inner monologues are spoken aloud by members of the cast like a chorus in a Greek tragedy, but they’re never overcooked, they feel part of the script not a convenient way around it.

Felix Hayes’ Rochester is every bit the striking, booming, self-righteous Brontë hero, perfectly walking the line between boorish posho and sensitive, repentant new (Victorian) man. Despite the worst proposal this side of Colin Firth’s Darcy, oh, and the small matter of his wife in the attic, we are rooting for these two to get together. There is humour too, some of it provided by Brontë’s own witty hand, some by Laura Elphinstone as Rochester’s hyper excitable ward Adele and a great deal by Craig Edwards’ brilliant comic turn as the hero’s dog Pilot. (On paper this role must have sounded like the stuff of an actor’s ‘back-end-of-a-pantomime-horse’ worst nightmare, but Edwards’ plays it so well, that it’s human equivalent of the scene-steeling goose in War Horse).

The set is integral to the play, a deceptively simple design of raised wooded boards and ladders that is as believable as a grand mansion on fire as it is a TB-ridden school. Wrapping all this up in a delightful aural package is composer Bower’s score that fuses jazz, soul and folk in original arrangements to beautiful effect. Melanie Marshall is both the ghostly form of poor Bertha in the attic and a captivating singer, crystallising Jane’s thoughts in song, her voice as clear and startling as a frosty Yorkshire morning.

You may think you know Jane Eyre, but this production is so full of surprises and such a stunning piece of theatre, that you’d do well to take a another trip to Brontë country.

Jane Eyre | Lyttelton Theatre at the National Theatre | Until 10 January 2016

Theatre Review: Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

Shine a Light on Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

Light Shining on Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

Caryl Churchill’s play about the English revolution, a moment in history that could have changed this country forever – imagine, no Jubilee parties and commemorative mugs – but instead sort of fizzled out leaving the French and the Americans to show us how to do it properly.

The staging of Lyndsey Turner’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire production is fantastic and grabs you the moment the curtain rises to reveal the Lyttelton Theatre stage dominated by a giant dining table groaning with man-sized mutton legs and pig heads around which sit upwards of 30 men, gnawing away at the plastic feast, undeterred by the starving masses outside the banquet hall. This stage-sized table later gives way – once we’re got rid of the Norman nobles – to enclosures, then a barren field. Well done set designer Es Devlin and team.

But as well as been a spectacle, the impressive staging is also a bit of a distraction. Churchill’s play was originally performed by six people; in this National Theatre production the cast is enormous – 62 according to Michael Billington’s review in The Guardian, although we counted around 40 actors during the curtain call.

The bulk of the ensemble is made up of the Community Company who provide a large chorus that adds to the theatre of the production. The singing that bookends the play and heralds the Putney Debate scene is indeed stirring stuff. But at the risk of sounding like a philistine, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is wordy and dense, Churchill’s script packed with rousing speeches that demand the brain firing, if not on full, then at least 90% throttle. While the dialogue is often enthralling, it was too easy to get distracted by all that was going on. The group of students next to us, many who didn’t have English as their first language, certainly found the dialogue difficult to follow, squirming and sighing throughout the first half, only for one of them ask his mate in the interval what it was all about. “Robin Hood, I think”, his friend replied.

Well, the disposing of a leader by birthright and taking power and land from the few and redistributing them among the many was one of the revolution’s aims so maybe Oliver Cromwell in green tights isn’t such a ridiculous idea. And a mash-up of Robin Hood and the English Revolution may have been, dare I say, a little more entertaining?

That’s not to say there’s not plenty to enjoy. Churchill’s play focuses largely on the experience of the working classes for whom little changed in the seven years England was without a Monarch and it’s interesting to see history narrated by those who weren’t in power when history was made. There’s also some nice correlation with today’s politics. A focal point of the play are the Putney Debates of 1647 scene that reenact the famous discussions on the constitution and the future governing of England by soldiers and officers of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, lead by the Levellers (so much of this period in history reads like an issue of the NME in 1992). Apparently in the days following the General Election 2015, these scenes received a spontaneous round of applause at the part where they call for electoral reform.

It’s difficult to pick a performance from such a large company, but I enjoyed Daniel Flynn as Cromwell and as the rather less revolutionary vicar who survived the seven monarch-less years with his velvet cloak unblemished. Adelle Leonce was excellent as the vagrant preacher who dares to speak out in church when women are forbidden to. Churchill highlights the plight of women even in this male dominated cast, drawing attention to the complete exclusion of the fairer sex in this revolution and their disenfranchised from life generally as their punishment for Eve’s love of a Granny Smith.

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire isn’t a cosy piece of theatre, it feels old-school in its execution and performance, but it’s well-produced and interesting (that sounds more damming that it’s meant to). Worth a look for fans of history and magnificent staging – just do go expecting any merry men. 

Light Shining in BuckinghamshireLyttelton Theatre, National Theatre | Until 22nd June 2015

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: A Taste of Honey, The National Theatre

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On its debut in 1958, A Taste of Honey caused quite a few feathers to ruffle. Shelagh Delaney’s tale of a working class Salford mother and daughter shocked people who liked to be shocked with its overt female sexuality, teenage pregnancy, interracial sex and homosexuality, then, of course, illegal. Delaney was only 18 when she wrote her game-changing play, penning it in response to seeing a production of Terence Rattigan’s Variations on A Theme in Manchester that she thought was stuffy, boring and old-fashioned.

There’s nothing boring, or even old-fashioned despite the 1950s setting, about this National Theatre production. In fact the past looks pleasing retro, Lesley Sharp’s gowns and undergarments are very Mad Men glam and even the gas works that loom over the back-to-backs seems romantic, but maybe that’s just the Smiths’ fan in me (as an aside, it was fun playing Smiths’ lyrics bingo – I got two).

The story is a simple one; Helen drags her daughter Jo (Port‘s Kate O’Flynn) from dingy flat to dingy flat across Greater Manchester. Helen likes to pretend it’s because she’s a free spirit but in reality she’s usually running away from a man. In this case the man, one-eyed Peter with a pirate style patch and a stash of gold, tracks her down with little trouble and whisks Helen away during Christmas leaving Jo alone (and not for the first time) .

Helen and Jo relish their frequent, nasty arguments, but beneath the bravado and biting words, Jo wants to be loved and wanted by her mother. Her loneliness drives her into the arms of a black sailor, who sticks around long enough to propose and take her to bed only to then vanish across the big blue sea. Left alone after Helen marries the increasingly brutal Peter, Jo’s salvation is Jeffery, a gay man who becomes her protector, cleaner, dress-maker and only friend.

While it caused consternation in the 1950s, A Taste of Honey barely raises an eyebrow these days, even among the National’s demographic. For a contemporary audience the most shocking aspect is the dingy bedsit and the thought of sharing a bathroom not only with people down the corridor, but also a family of cockroaches. Shaking off its shocking shackles meant that the focus is on the mother-daughter relationship. It’s a vicious, complicated one, played with vigour by the two leads. Lesley Sharp’s Helen is flamboyant, glamorous and cruel and never still. When it looks like her sharp edges have been blunted and you begin to think you’ve misjudged her only for her to bite back with added venom.

There is humour and warmth in A Taste of Honey, but it also pulsates with anger and resentment at being stuck in the quagmire of life. Not that they are whingers, Helen and Jo – and they are far more alike than either of them would care to admit – are tough and resolute in their decisions, always ready to pick themselves up again. The performances from the two leads are both fantastic, Lesley Sharp’s Helen is a multi-layered, complex character – brittle, girly, mean and needy, while O’Flynn reflects a lot of these characteristics back at her stage mother, heightening the similarities between while retaining her individuality.

Despite its of-its-time themes, A Taste of Honey feels fresh and relevant, now in its final few weeks its worth trying to catch this great production of a landmark British play.

A Taste of Honey runs until 11 May. For tickets and more information visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

Theatre review: Othello, The National Theatre, London

Rory Kinnear as Iago and Adrian Lester as Othello

Five hundred odd years since Shakespeare died, and we still can’t get enough of his plays. You can’t swing a plastic skull without hitting a Shakespeare production up and down this sceptred isle.  Maybe it’s the assurance that you know what you’re getting, you know you never have worry about the quality of the script with a Shakespeare play. Sure his plots can go a little awol, some of his storylines are a little dated, but the man knew how to put quill to parchment.

With every new production, it all hinges on the acting and, to a lesser – though still crucial – extent, the setting. The National Theatre’s much praised production of Othello moves the action to modern times, opening with Iago outside a Wetherspoons-a-like pub, moving to a stark cabinet boardroom as the big cheeses of Venice discuss the Turkish problem, before the action turns to Cyprus where Othello is heading up an operation in a modern day British army base. (Confusingly, I think we’re still meant to believe the soldiers are Italian, although there’s little of the Mediterranean about this lager swilling bunch, especially as they’re dressed as, erm, British soldiers).

The modern day setting mostly works well, ramping up the machismo and exposing the volatile life of a soldier on active – and so often, inactive – service. There are times when it jars slightly; awaiting the arrival of Othello in Cyprus, it sounded incongruous hearing squaddies talking of ‘tempests’. Then there’s the issue of a contemporary setting bringing into sharp relief some of Shakespeare’s 17th century absurdities; this production certainly highlights Othello’s irrational, ridiculous, overly-macho behaviour. Why, why, why doesn’t he just confront Desdemona, or take Cassio out for a pint to talk things over? Why does he believe everything his friend Iago tells him unquestioningly? Why do four people die because of a misplaced handkerchief?

But in the final horrible scene when Othello has killed his innocent wife in a jealous rage, he says, in answer to Lodovico “For nought I did in hate, but all in honour” it reminded me that there are still two women a week in this country killed by their partners and the perpetrators’ excuses are equally as flimsy, and certainly less articulate, as Othello’s. And with recent ‘honour killings’ making headlines, “an honourable murderer, if you will” is still enough of a reason to murder for some.

As is so often the case, the devil gets the best lines. Iago must be a joy to play for any actor, he’s so wonderfully two-faced, so slimy, so magnificient at lying. All his talk of honesty, and boy does he talk of it, and the whole time he’s bringing down Othello simply by planting a few choice words into the Moor’s head. I think he might be Shakespeare’s best (worst) villain, he’s pure evil (“motiveless malignity”), he’s a ye olde internet troll – bitter, jealous and racist – with better lines.  You do have to wonder how he gets away with it for so long, surely someone must see through him. But then, in this production at least, he does have the face of Rory Kinnear who looks like butter wouldn’t melt even in army fatigues and a suitably military strut.

Kinnear is an exceptional Iago, but all the acting is, as has been well documented, immense. Adrian Lester’s Othello is as muscular as his pecs, his acting – in deed the whole production – is so physical (the NT’s PT must have been very busy).  Fresh from playing nosy little reporter cub in Broadchurch, Jonathan Bailey is brilliant as goody-goody Cassio, who could, in the wrong hands, be a little sanctimonious. In Bailey’s he’s passionate enough to make good look, well, good. Desdemona isn’t the most three dimentional of characters, but Olivia Vinall highlights her vulnerability and youth; she’s heart wrenching in the final scene as Othello looms over her bed. I wanted someone in the front row to rescue her such was the force of her anguish.

Othello is a bum-numbingly long play, but even I, who gets restless watching a YouTube video, was spellbound for all three plus hours of Nicholas Hytner’s taunt, passionate and dramatic production.

Othello at the National Theatre runs until 5th October 2013. There are still tickets available here

by Suzanne Elliott