Based on Polly Teale’s admirable adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s novel, this production was a mixed bag. Despite some strong points, the acting was not wholly convincing. Many actors were playing multiple parts and few were playing all of them well. The notable exception was Josie Richardson who switched from kindly housemaid, with a great accent, to the cold and snobbish Blanche Ingram, then to an addled old woman. Her voice, her face, her movements changed completely in the embodiment of each new role. Chloe Gale as Jane did well to convey the span of time across which the play takes place; she visibly matured from childish insolence through to carrying the burdens of her adult life. Jo Murray played Bertha Mason who, at the beginning of the play, is merely a theatrical device to express Jane’s inner feelings but then, as the play develops, retreats to the attic in Thornfield, observing and reacting to the situations on stage. Her feral ferocity was great; she emitted a profuse energy and intensity with a reddened face, contorted in angst, emitting squeals and squeaks and roars. But this good stuff was undercut by mediocrity in other characters: either too wooden or too pantomime, with forced, simpering smiles or lines that sounded like reading from a script. While it is easy to forgive a few, there were too many clipped and stumbled lines which, with that amount of regularity, belie the immersive experience that theatre should be.
The set was visually enticing: stained and tattered, decaying dust sheets cover various items of furniture. A hatstand stood on one side and a rusted chandelier lay neglected on the other, all surrounded by boxes of tat and bric-a-brac. As a whole, a gothic glow emanated from it. The way this set was used was also ingenious. A kind of through-staging effect was employed as small elements of the set were changed for each scene – a mattress placed here or a couple of chairs there, but everything else staying in the same place. This means that there was no need for big set changes, and the action of the narrative could flow seamlessly – as it did. There was a visual coherence to the design, so almost all of the costumes were black and white, which contrasted particularly effectively in the (important) scenes that involved fire.
In fact, the direction (Imogen O’Sullivan and Olivia Gillman) was very good and incorporated some innovative ideas. Jane and Bertha say some of their lines in unison, emphasising Bertha’s role as a kind of psychological mirror. But, again, some of these promising directorial decisions were undermined by other elements of the play, for example, by the sound design. For some reason, Alt-J’s Bloodflood and Moby’s Pale Horses were chosen as the accompanying themes. It was a bold choice, but it created an incongruity of moods: the gothic foreboding, the prim and clipped aphoristic English which the characters spoke stood stark against the synth-infused, indie-tronica crooning of Alt-J. I liked both, but not together. And then, there were some oddly-placed sound effects, so when Rochester mentions the word ‘horse’ the sound of a horse is heard. But these sound bites came and went so abruptly that they were a distraction.
It was an odd production. Some clever direction and an excellent design did not redeem two and a half hours’ worth of unexceptional acting (from some characters) and a lack of pace that should not have been present in a condensed, whistle-stop tour through what is, actually, quite a long novel.
** (2 Stars)
PHOTOS/ Olivia Gillman and Vicki Lampard