Jane Eyre

Wed 21st – Sat 24th November 2012

reviews

Francesca Petrizzo

at 01:19 on 22nd Nov 2012

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Plagued by a half-baked production, a boring script and an inadequate male lead, the show inevitably collapses despite the female lead's and supporting cast's best efforts.

The problem of adapting Jane Eyre for the theatre is self-evident: a big fat book narrated in the first person by an introvert character is not exactly stage-friendly. The Polly Teale script chosen by the directors for this show fails to deliver: it reads like a tick-list of the book’s main events, where important plot points and significant characters are lost in a long succession of scenes that last an average of two minutes each. The much advertised concept of connecting Jane to Bertha does not come off, as for most of the play the two do not interact. It’s a good idea, but only shown at the beginning and end, and it mostly means that the poor Bertha is constantly on stage for nothing (saddled with such an unpleasant role, however, Jo Murray acquits herself beautifully).

No matter: brilliant production design has saved mediocre play-texts before, but Red Room Productions are not forthcoming on this front. Their set is a maddeningly incomplete palimpsest, where the ghosts of good ideas are glimpsed only to be abandoned: supposed to look like an abandoned house, cluttered with glaringly anachronistic elements (it’s hard to come by genuine period furniture, I know; but a gramophone and fedoras in a play set in the early 19th century?), dispersive and overall shabby and uninteresting, it really does not help the audience focus on the already colourless text. The directorial choice of using two levels of the stage might have been good, were it not that the actors are forced to use a very awkward ladder to ascend to the higher ground, making the already badly choreographed changes of scene even worse.

Since most scenes are set in one environment, it’s not particularly clear why the light designers decided to divide the stage in zones through the use of focused illumination; especially since this means that for much of the play characters move and speak in darkness. It’s under-rehearsing at best, bad blocking at worst; either way, it’s maddeningly distracting. The soundtrack does not help: the use of modern music in period pieces has sometimes been beautifully employed, but sadly this is not one of those cases. The soundtrack is composed mostly of excerpts from a mewling pop song (and at least once loud enough to make the actors shout over it).

The pity of it is, most of the cast truly try their best: Josie Richardson is the best character actress Oxford has seen in a while, and she smoothly and entertainingly changes roles, from Bessie to Blanche Ingram to Grace Pool, with admirable talent; Adam Diaper is endearingly fun as Lord Ingram and the priest; Alice Inglis truly adorable as the little Adele. Lucy Shenton wears well the prim and blustering persona of Mrs Fairfax, and Alex Stutt lends his St John a lively, compelling fury.

But they are all, however competent, supporting performers; they can’t save the play from the weakness of its leading man. One feels sorry for Chloe Gale, whose heartfelt performance as Jane Eyre might yet survive the bad lines she’s given; it can’t make it against the brick-like, stunted delivery of Rochester by Phil Gemmell. He seems to think that emotion is lent to words by lingering about five seconds on each one of them; that seduction is enacted by clumsily invading a lady’s personal space; that chemistry is instantly summoned by grabbing the actress’ chin halfway through their third scene together. When he tries to show silent earnestness, he just looks plain funny; nor is it helpful that he forgets his lines often throughout the play. As Gale vainly acts her heart out, lending real emotion to her character, Gemmell responds with a toneless delivery that, despite his counterpart’s best efforts, just makes the scenes fall flat. It takes two to enact a love story.

A special mention goes to Jo Murray (Bertha): her early, charming scenes with Chloe Gale promise much, but the uneven script relegates her to the background for most of the show, nullifying its much vaunted premise and wasting her considerable talent. Despite the lighting’s fondness for focusing on her knees and leaving her face in shadow, despite the fact that she shares her stage space with a bad cardboard model of fire as seen by a drunken futurist sculptor, and that she seldom if ever gets any attention, her interpretation of grief, despair, and finally insanity is a splendid and tragically wasted piece of theatre.

Haunted by a bad script, a bland set, incompetent lighting and a genuinely awfully developed male lead, Jane Eyre is a thoroughly forgettable show; a pity and a waste for the genuinely talented performers that somehow got caught in it.

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Holly Hewlett

at 11:08 on 22nd Nov 2012

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Charlotte Brontë's 'Jane Eyre' was always intended to be provocative; it probed at questions of class, feminism and religion that the Christian, patriarchal society of the mid-eighteenth century didn't really want to think about. Polly Teale’s adaptation focuses especially on the questions about gender and sexual desire raised in the novel, using the character of Bertha to bring Jane’s repressed emotions to life. Red Room Productions’ 'Jane Eyre' is aesthetically interesting, with some strong performances, although throughout it you can’t help but feel that something is missing. It just doesn't quite manage to deliver the same punch as the original novel.

We first meet Jane (Chloe Gale) as a young orphan girl, desperate to see the world but confined to a little corner of it by her sex and her class. Struggling to suppress her wild subconscious, brought to life through the character of Bertha (Jo Murray), Jane is sent off to a charity school. There she matures into a quiet and reserved girl, who has never known love until she falls for the mysterious Mr Rochester (Phil Gemmell), a man haunted by his past. Gale’s portrayal of Jane was sensitive and believable; while Gemmell’s excellent projection gave Rochester the appropriate proud and commanding tone. Sadly the chemistry between the two was by no means electrifying, although the second act did see an improvement. Bertha was potentially the most challenging part, but Murray played her well – the audience was always aware of her presence in the 'attic' (the raised platform at the back of the stage) yet she never overshadowed the main action. As intended, she was a great complement to Jane; I found myself watching Bertha during Jane’s more emotional speeches, as she physically expressed the passion behind Jane’s words.

Josie Richardson and Adam Diaper, who played several characters, also deserve special mention: they brought the pompous characters of Lord Ingram and his daughter, Blanche, vividly to life. That said, Diaper recycled the stereotype of the flamboyant, snooty upper-middle class man for almost all of his characters, which was only really acceptable because it added some humour to what is otherwise a very sombre tale.

One thing that sometimes strikes me about amateur theatre is the fact that, despite having a cast of very capable actors, those chosen for the additional bit-parts quite often sound like they have literally just been dragged off the street and forced into the role. This was the case with Alice Inglis who, despite playing a sweet and spirited Adele, spoke the lines for her other roles (the house-maid, little Helen Burns and St John Rivers’ sister) with as much passion as I imagine a back-stage prompter would.

The production was enhanced by its use of lighting and sound-effects, although the odd dog bark or horse neigh did seem a bit out of place. Perhaps one of the techie’s hands slipped? Especially evocative, though, was the use of a musical crescendo towards the end of the first act, when Jane becomes overwhelmed by her first experience of jealousy. Effective use was also made of the stage, which was littered with piles of bricks and objects such as mirrors and chandeliers. As they are never referred to, the audience is free to infer whatever symbolism they want: personally I thought the clutter was foreshadowing the destruction of the house, but perhaps it also suggested the chaotic and troubled memories plaguing Rochester.

The actors also handled several prop malfunctions professionally: no-one broke from character, for example, when an exhausted Jane fell into a chair which promptly collapsed under her. Instead she was helped gently into another seat, while she looked almost too weary to even realise what had happened.

All in all, attending 'Jane Eyre' was a fine way to spend an evening. But, if I’m honest, I think that owed more to the classic story, and to Polly Teale’s innovative adaptation, than it did to this specific production. The team just didn’t seem to add anything new or exciting through their interpretation of the play, which is a shame. Perhaps I'm being unfair - maybe themes of Jane Eyre are too outdated to be provocative anymore. But that, in my opinion, was the challenge.

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