Gryphon Theatre
July 16-26 | Reviewed by Kate Blackhurst

IN THE SPIRIT of full disclosure, I will admit that Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is my favourite ever book. Stagecraft’s latest production is Jane Eyre, but not as we know it. Polly Teale’s adaptation imagines Bertha Mason, the mad woman in the attic, as Jane’s alter ego, with implications that don’t always work, but Paul Kay’s direction masterfully highlights all the areas he wants us to notice.

When Jane (played by Hannah Banks with strength and maturity) and Bertha (Rebecca Parker) speak together, they do so in harmonious stereo, representing the opposite sides of a woman’s nature. How sad it is that Jane must tame the wild and passionate side in order to succeed in life or secure a man, which amounts to the same thing in this play.

Jane only severs her ties, though and does not kill her beast. The physicality of Rebecca Parker as Bertha Mason is simply fabulous. She looks at times like the mad one out of 80s synth-pop-rock band Shakespeare’s Sister. Incidentally, the video for ‘Stay’ could well have been an inspiration for this play.

Trapped in a locked room, Bertha remains on stage for the entire play, caged like a go-go dancer, swinging from bars, rubbing against poles and occasionally writhing on a podium. Dressed in a scandalous red dress, which is simultaneously wicked and sexual, and Rebecca certainly ‘looks hot’ as overheard in the foyer.

This is Victorian England where women who displayed sensuality were locked away in attics and mental institutions, but it is hard to feel sorry for Mr Rochester (Chris O’Grady) as he whines through his ‘poor me – I married a woman who wanted to go dancing’ speech. His hurling of his wife to the floor has shameful echoes of current events, where things are not black and white, but red and grey.

There are no bleak and beautiful fells – the set is a Gothic nightmare of red, black and grey – but you can still imagine people drinking themselves to death to escape the sheer boredom of tedious soirees and card parties. Bertha is not the only one who is caged, and Blanche Ingram (the ever-impressive Shannon Tubman) also paces like a barely restrained tigress while waiting the return of Mr Rochester.

Mr Rochester himself (Chris O’Grady) is more avuncular than aggressive, although his calm assurance works well in a more modern interpretation. The chemistry between him and young Jane is believable and touching rather than passionate. They complement each other favourably and help the audience to forget that in this era for a man and a woman to be equal, she must be rich and he must be blind.

Paul Kay’s work as a director begins with the casting, and this is the major triumph of the production. The doubling of parts gives the actors the chance to display their range – a challenge which Alan Carabott, Shannon Tubman, Mel Heaphy and Tanisha Fearon in particular rise to with assurance. Alan Carabott as Mr Brocklehurst stops just on the right side of caricature and Mel Heaphy as Adele is simply sublime with ridiculous ringlets, pretty pirouettes and an outrageous French accent.

The production plays up the comedy to such an extent that people discussing the play in the interval were heard to say, ‘I didn’t realise it was so funny; I’m going to read it now’. They’ll be disappointed if they’re looking for laughs; the humour in the novel is far more subtle.

It is hard not to be upstaged by a man in a pantomime dog costume (Stephen Walter) and Rochester’s horse – Alan Carabott and Devon Heaphy prancing and tossing their curls – got the biggest cheer of the night. Grace Pool (Tabitha Arthur) was terrifying in the book, launching a childhood terror of passing attic doors. She is certainly not amusing, although met with gales of laughter on opening night.

The Rivers family is the hardest for a purist to accept. Jane’s decision of whether or not to marry St John (Stephen Walter again) should be the toughest of her life (she was alone and penniless without beauty or family) whereas you know she would be stupid to accept this ignorant foppish comedy character who belongs in a sketch show, albeit a very good one – think Little Britain.

The scene changes are swift and often affected through skilful lighting (designed by Lee Bennett and Matthew Leather) which help to further the action without lengthy or distracting pauses. The conclusion is satisfying as the ends are neatly tied up. Timbers blackened in the fire are broken (and repaired each night by tireless set constructor Stephen Fearnley) into cross-like shapes projected onto a fiery red backdrop conjuring up all the notions of hell, damnation and redemption which have been hinted at throughout.