What are you supposed to do when one of your best friends says that the theater tickets they would like as a birthday present (see why she rates so highly?) would be ones to Jane Eyre at the National? You think I’d jump up and down – it’s a story I like – but instead I felt a horrible foreboding. No, it was not the ticket cost (£50 or so), or the lack of availability, it was the LENGTH. Three and one half hours, my darlings. THREE AND ONE HALF HOURS. One interval. HOW COULD I EVER SURVIVE?
This kind of thing requires a plan of attack. The National has helped by starting the performances at 7 PM (NOTE THIS!!!), so that you’re done around 10:30; I decided to assist by going only for a Friday night or weekend performance, then prepped my body with a minimum of liquids beforehand (wine an absolute no – no, it’s nearly two hours before the interval) and … well, a light dinner. Because, believe it or not, when I got to the theater I discovered that I was running a temperature and I wasn’t feeling particularly well. (I did attempt to return my ticket but could not. My apologies to people sitting near me except that the woman who kept explaining plot points quite audibly to her 11 year old daughter, I sincerely hope your whole family comes down with whatever I had.) For normal people, I might recommend sweets, except NOT in the case of (again) the family sitting next to me, who crackled their packet of fudge so loudly they were shushed TWICE from people sitting behind them. Intolerable. Stick to the home cinema, people, or learn how to respect other audience members.
The amazing thing is that despite being weak, dehydrated, and at the end of a long work week, I had no problems at all making it through the near two hours it took to get to the interval. Jane Eyre is damned good story telling, and the decision to strip it back to almost no set and the barest of costuming served it well, making us focus on the characters, with little hints – a cap, a shawl – and the ever present Eyre – Madeleine Worral – and “woman in red” – Melanie Marshall (pretty easy to figure out who she was to be even in the first half of the evening where she only sang). The constraints of the multiple casting took away some opportunities for subtlety, but the flexibility of the cast ensured that we were never confused about who we were watching – a spoiled daughter, a starving girl, a slightly arrogant priest, et cetera. Instead we focused on Jane Jane Jane and Jane (with a little Rochester), for it is her story, and we must understand her journey, her sense of her own truth, and commit to and love her like nearly nobody else in this story is ever able to.
After the miracle of her survival of boarding school (and our survival of the first act), it was practically a romp getting through act two, set up in a grown up world and full of big reveals. Now, I know that these days Jane Eyre is such a classic that there seems no reason to even comment on her as a character, but a character with such a strong sense of self and of right and wrong seems to me rare in literature. I could feel the struggles of the poor in Jane’s every action; and I could see how there might have been thousands of other Eyres who ended their lives dead of starvation (even if they’d taken up prostitution to make the money that wasn’t there – Bronte doesn’t seem to include this as a possibility but we have to know that it’s a parallel track alongside the one Jane follows). In modern eyes, she is inflexible and moralistic, but for her indomitable spirit, she is infinitely inspirational. When flocks of women in Austen’s tales accept an unexciting marriage for financial convenience, Bronte’s heroine says no – not for love, but out of self-respect. I found it all a bit exhilarating, and not at all what I was expecting after such a long time. In retrospect, the price for the tickets was good, as it actually broke down to two plays for the price of one – again, a bit of a surprise for me. But having friends with good taste does have its rewards – even when I’m the one playing the Fairy Theater Godmother.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, October 23rd, 2015. It’s running through January 10th, so plenty of time to catch it still.)