The Blog

Review: Jane Eyre at Bristol Old Vic/Theatre Royal

Perhaps most impressively, the production manages to make a book from an era where a year's worth of information corresponds to approximately a second's of our own time feel relevant without the need for any crude literary devices.

It seemed an act of abominable cruelty when, in 1996, an otherwise reputable school in the West of Hertfordshire forced a class of 15 year old boys not only to read, but repeatedly feign enthusiasm for Charlotte Bronte's 1847 novel, Jane Eyre. I should know. I write as a survivor.

The wounds that were inflicted that cold autumn led to scars that remain today. This was not just a missed opportunity to engender a love of reading that would enrich our minds and beautify our language. The ordeal in fact fomented a sense of resentment towards literature that for some among my cohort will last for life. Still today, whisper the word 'Thornfield' to one of my former classmates and he will proceed to weep like a baby; although given what he was put through almost twenty years ago, we should perhaps be grateful for this sign of life, and not take it as a sign of weakness.

If only Sally Cookson's stage production had been around to bridge the gaping chasm between us crude, Lynx Africa-caped delinquents and this dissonantly romantic episode in our curriculum. In it, a long, old novel of the kind you must publicly venerate but often privately despise is presented afresh by a masterful storyteller and her cunning associates. Returning to Bristol as part of the Theatre Royal's 250-year celebrations, having spent time at the home of its co-sponsor, The National Theatre, it has already impressed thousands with its utterly unique and engaging adaptation of the middle Bronte's opus. And on Thursday, I was delighted to find myself among their number.

As a result of my visit, despite the pain I endured when forced to read the novel all those years ago, I can now recognise for the first time the wonderful qualities that my teacher had worked so hard to enable us to see. Drama. Character. Wit. And a message. At the time, I had mistaken our lesson as one of conformity with the doddery Victorian ethos that still lingered at my school, but Bronte instead advocates rebellion and common sense. She advocates independence of both reason and conscience. She promotes moral consistently. And she lands some of the nineteenth century's most elegant blows in the fight against patriarchy and the puritanical dogma of that age. If only I had been able to pay attention at the time.

Judging from the proportion of the audience that occupied block-booked seats - and remained in them during the interval to jostle or hold hands while their teachers quaffed red wine at the bar - it seems the book still features on school syllabuses today. And the remarkable pace at which the story is tackled - and moments of passion and intrigue blended together - must help ignite an interest among those compelled to study the source material. Twenty years ago, it was a tough task to inspire a mid-Britpop rabble of Berkhamstedians to care about anything remotely romantic - particularly the emotions of people both fictional and dead. But I suspect this production might have managed it. Certainly I have rarely known a stairwell so universally revenant after the curtains have fallen.

Music was a huge part of the production's appeal. Throughout the performance, recorded strings blended with consummately performed live music. There were songs, and toes were tapped. But was this therefore a musical? No. Musicals, in my experience, are enjoyed by people who don't really like music. This performance was for those who do. A permanent presence of polymathic musicians produced sounds that would be enough for me to recommend a visit independently of the show's other marvels. Sometimes blusey, often folky, seamlessly shifting from lead role to the actors' subtle accompanier with grace, their sound was at times reminiscent of Nils Fram or Tord Gustavsen, at times like The Gloaming, and even managed to pull off a self-consciously poignant Luhrmannesque cover of Gnarls Barkley's Crazy - the drivelish lyrics somehow making sense and even seeming relevant by the semi-operatic, ultra-formalised phraseology of Melanie Marshall's inch-perfect delivery. The Bower Brothers and the associates deserve heavy praise indeed.

Perhaps most impressively, the production manages to make a book from an era where a year's worth of information corresponds to approximately a second's of our own time feel relevant without the need for any crude literary devices. There are no contrived analogies here. Jane is not a punkish hacker, fighting cyberbullying under the pseudonym Govern-X; Rochester is not a drugs baron; St John not a Mullah. It maintained the attention of the diverse audience through a basic but not unsophisticated means: by exposing us to a succession of utterly compelling attractions, whether dramatic or musical, at a relentless pace. Most were inventive; a few were humorous. Many were true to the book; others were not. But cumulatively they fostered a greater affinity for Bronte; for reading; perhaps even for love itself. And despite this pace, it was not hurried. We arrived at our destination not following an agonising and jolting journey by carriage, but by a comfortable train ride, kept company, it turned out, by a very good novel.