Saturday, 19 December 2015

This Wide And Universal Theatre

Jane Eyre – I am no bird
Jane Eyre, in my opinion, is one of the glories of English Literature. It’s not my favourite Charlotte Brontë  novel – that would be Villette, partly because I think that novel is more subversive and Lucy Snowe is a very troubling and troubled character. But Jane Eyre has had a massive cultural impact and given way to concepts and phrases that are in the nation’s subconscious fabric:
•    Plain Jane
•    The red room
•    The madwoman in the attic
•    Do you think I am an automaton?
•    I am a free human being with an independent will
•    Reader, I married him
•    The ruined house (and damaged man) symbolic of redemption

Sally Cookson’s production
Earlier in the year Bristol Old Vic staged a two-night production by Sally Cookson, devised by the cast, designed by Michael Vale with music by Benji Bower. I mention their three names because their contributions to the final performance were overwhelming. I caught this production in its shortened one-night revival at Cineworld in an NT Live broadcast and found it thrilling, funny and moving. Film and TV versions have been shy of using Charlotte Bronte’s over-wrought language but the cast here delivered many “quotations” with energy.
Total Theatre
With a utilitarian stage of ladders, windows, bars and ramps, the space reflected the struggles in the novel between survival, aspiration, barriers and hope. The music underscored the emotions and surprised at times with blues versions of Noël Coward’s Mad About the Boy and Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy. Melanie Mason, in a vivid red dress, sang out Bertha Mason’s broken heart and somehow distilled the spirit of Jean Rhys’s Antoinette Cosway from Wide Sargasso Sea. The bristly charismatic Laura Elphinstone as Helen Burns, Adèle Varens and St John Rivers, the galumphing Craig Edwards as Pilot (the dog) and bass-toned Felix Hayes as the (in Charlotte’s words) the “strikingly peculiar” Rochester all shone in a multi-role cast that worked their socks off. And Madeleine Worrall tied everything together in her journey as Jane from stubborn, tormented child to passionate, free-spirited woman.
“Jane, be still; don't struggle so like a wild, frantic bird, that is rending its own plumage in its desperation.""I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being, with an independent will; which I now exert to leave you.”
London Road, The Rocky Horror Show, Hamlet, Hecuba, Antony and Cleopatra
Theatre in the Cinema
This year I’ve seen 8 theatre productions at the cinema and enjoyed every one – the price, the convenience, the close-ups, the clarity. I can’t see an argument against broadcasting live theatre and hope the practice continues. In terms of reaching audiences throughout the UK and the world, it is, it seems to me, a no-brainer. I’ve still managed to shell out for 24 live theatre events at the Alhambra in Bradford, at Leeds Arena, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, in the West End of London and, most frequently, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and Swan theatres in Stratford-upon-Avon. So, from what I’ve experienced (and from what I’ve read) cinema broadcasts of theatre have not diminished theatre audiences and, in some cases, have given them a boost. Long may it continue. Best theatre of the year? Probably Jane Eyre at the cinema and, amongst live productions, a toss up between Oppenheimer and Death of a Salesman.