Reinventing the classics: a review of Jane Eyre at the Bristol Old Vic

Maya Jones reviews the Bristol Old Vic’s Jane Eyre and discusses the tension of submission and freedom in this literary classic

‘The first time I just read it as a love story. This time I was much more struck by the strength of the woman’s fight to be equal, how ahead of her time she was. We are still fighting but in 1847, it was extraordinary’. Maggie Tagney (Mrs Reed/Mrs Fairfax)

Two years ago, director Sally Cookson began a two-part project to put Jane Eyre on stage at the Bristol Old Vic. Its success took the show to London with the National Theatre, before a condensed version returned home to Bristol.

I have read Jane Eyre twice. First, as a fourteen-year-old, blindingly making my way through all of the ‘classics’ at an impossible speed. I gave up a few chapters from the end, missing some rather integral plot lines.

The second time I was sixteen and had just discovered feminism. Charlotte Brontë’s protagonist frustrated me. Already a staunch Wuthering Heights fan, I found Jane meek, even boring, compared to Cathy. I also despised Rochester and was naturally not a fan of the newly-discovered happy ending.

So I continued with my dark Wuthering Heights romance and dismissed Jane Eyre as a submissive love story.

Sally Cookson’s production proved that Jane Eyre, too, is a dark novel. In a quote on the back of the programme, the adaptation is summarised: ‘I am no bird; and no net ensnares me’.

The first half of the play charts Jane – played with excellence by Madeleine Worrall – and her attempt to escape this net. As the audience watch Jane grow from a baby into a woman, this net only increases. The torment of her youth is epitomised with a lengthy exploration of the red room, the dark crimson lights and throbbing music projecting her fear onto the audience. With only a minimalist wooden structure to make up the staging, this is one of the rare moments of colour. Perhaps it is crucial then that Bertha – played by Melanie Marshall – also stands in a red dress. She is confined to another kind of room: the attic. Unlike Jane, she never escapes.


The scene then changes to the next stage in Jane’s life – Lowood Institution. Here, Jane befriends Helen Burns, who is physically punished on stage for knowing the answer to a question. The message is clear: women should not speak out.

This is why words such as those on the back of the programme, the famous quote from the novel itself, are all the more astonishing; many of Brontë’s phrases seem decidedly ahead of her time. When Worrall channels Jane’s suffering and shouts, ‘I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you’, Rochester – Felix Hayes – seems defeated. He cannot argue with Jane’s basic reasoning, as she towers over him from the top of the wooden structure.

I noticed, for the first time, the conflict at the heart of this novel. It is a conflict between freedom and desire. Only by the end does Jane realise that the two are perhaps compatible – something my sixteen-year-old self failed to recognise.

Surprisingly, it was Bertha who carried the play, which is, in itself, empowering. Her very character has inspired the trope of the dehumanised ‘madwoman’ in the attic, locked away by a racist Rochester who cannot understand the consequences of displacement and isolation from her homeland, Jamaica.

In an unusual move, Bertha was cast as a professional singer. Melanie Marshall never spoke, instead using her voice to convey her character’s emotions. However, she was not confined to expressing just her own passions. Instead, through music composed by Benji Bower, Bertha became a musical narrator. Her presence was consistent on stage throughout the play and her role only heightened at integral moments. When Rochester attempted to convince Jane of her madness, and thus justify his own actions, Bertha sung a soulful and slow rendition of Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy. This both undermined Rochester with his definition of madness and echoed Jane’s despair at the decision he forced her to take.

Even after her death, Bertha remained on stage as a poignant reminder of the many women of colour who have been suppressed and forgotten by the white man, Rochester, throughout history. Cookson chose to elevate her role from the ‘madwoman in the attic’ to a character that the play could not function without. Indeed, her voice, and the music, was undoubtedly what made the play great.

The play ends with the opening scene: Jane’s first moments as a baby. Thus, the audience is left with the suggestion that the hardships of Jane’s life were all too common for a woman of the early nineteenth century. Whilst I still find the relationship between Jane and Rochester problematic, Cookson’s production has, at least, inspired me to re-read Jane Eyre once again. The performance was original, enthralling and, unexpectedly, empowering for women.

Illustration by Billie Gavurin


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