REVIEW: Jane Eyre, Tread the Boards at The Attic Theatre

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Ruth Mestel, left, and Dru Stephenson as Jane Eyre. Photo: Andrew Maguire

IMPRESSIVE has to be an understatement when describing Tread the Boards’ adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, currently playing at Stratford’s Attic Theatre.

Having just written hundreds of thousands of words worth of PhD thesis on Brontë and failed miserably in condensing it I admit I was curious, even slightly sceptical, as to how this Victorian door-stopper could be squeezed into a two-and-a-half-hour production without losing the plot.

Given that the page-turning brilliance of the novel that propelled Brontë into the spotlight was and is largely to do with its intricately interwoven details and twists and turns that are all highly dependent on one another for their effect, I wondered what on earth could be culled and still leave a legible and gripping drama. I also wondered how a necessarily pared-down version would fare in terms of its dark and intense passions, which so often descend into melodramatic wailing in many adaptations of Brontë fiction.

Oh me of little faith. Not only did this small but beautifully formed company blow away any reservations I might have had, this fantastic production actually blew me away. It is sophisticated, captivating and ingeniously done.

One major revelation was that never could so few props convey so much information. This visual shorthand was used so cleverly and imaginatively, in much the same vein as Brontë does herself in written form. Her work is stuffed full of things, big and small, part of her genius being to fill those things with a plethora of meanings and signals. The same technique translates brilliantly onto the stage in this production. Who knew, for instance, that the humble suitcase could stand in for so many things and have so many uses, practical, metaphorical and thematic? They can stand in for deathbeds; be stood upon as a method of humiliation at Lowood school dunce’s corner; they are a prominent motif suggesting orphan Jane’s literal and psychological homelessness — she lives out of suitcases. As a plot condensing device, though, the suitcase is one example of how a seemingly sparse collection of props can speak volumes — simply packing a suitcase at one part of the stage and arriving at another complete with a swift bonnet-change can skip over several chapters of Jane’s life, and of the novel, seamlessly.

Props are far from the only aspect of this production that seem endlessly versatile; this seven-strong cast has its work cut out covering the main characters and does so with aplomb. It is unjust to single one actor out because each plays several parts and most are major and majorly different roles at that. As an example of the calibre of acting here, though, Ruth Mestel can go from long-suffering and pious Helen Burns dying of consumption in a heart-rending scene to skippy, frivolous French dancer’s daughter Adele Varens and on to Rochester’s Jamaican wife-cum-madwoman in the attic Bertha Mason, with such skill that it’s easy to forget they’re played by the same actor.

Every member of the cast, though, is superb, their performances utterly believable and gripping – I am pleased to report that not a whit of melodramatic shrieking or wild arm-waving enters here. The emotion is intense, the passion authentic, the joys and tragedies heartfelt and heart-rending.

Brontë’s characters, in all their depth and complexity, are brought to life brilliantly by Dru Stephenson as Jane and Andy Chaplin as Rochester. Stephenson’s Jane, plain and humble, brutally victimised but never reduced to a victim, wins the audience not with pathos but with pride as her strength of character shines through to beat the odds not be beaten by them — just as Brontë intended. The Yorkshire accent is a welcome reminder of the author’s presence in this tale, too. Chaplin’s Edward Rochester is brooding and Byronic, handsome and charismatic, full of faults yet neither entirely woeful nor wholly wicked. He holds the audience in his hands to such an extent that it’s easy to overlook his attempted bigamy and root for him to get his girl.

Director Andrew Smith admits it was a big ask to bring together seven versatile actors who could sing, play, dance and double up on roles. But his mission is most certainly accomplished, they do, indeed, do each of these things impeccably. They even play most of the live sound effects and compose the songs themselves and, much like the props, these sound elements capture the spirit and storms of Brontë’s atmospheric novel with the slightest touch that is nevertheless loaded with significance.

In short, go and see it.