In the year of Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday, a celebration of her best-known work, Jane Eyre, seems highly appropriate. Especially since the eponymous heroine is one of the earliest and, indeed, greatest literary feminists – contemporary champions of the cause could learn a lot from this woman of strength, dignity and steadfast principles. But turning this tale into a ballet may not be everybody’s first inclination.
Not so for the Northern Ballet, a company that never shies away from big, meaty and often complex stories that others might fear unsuited to the art form; past original productions have included another Brontë classic, middle sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights in 2002, along with Cleopatra (2011), The Great Gatsby (2013) and indeed, this season’s 1984, with Casanova premièring next year.
The difficulty in conveying the character of Jane Eyre would, one might assume, lie in expounding the orphan’s very sophisticated mental battles and the emotional distress caused first by her cruel aunt and cousins at home, then at the severe Lowood Institution, and subsequently when she becomes a governess at Thornfield Hall where she falls in love with her employer, Mr Rochester, only to have her wedding ambushed by his terrifyingly troubled wife, ruining all of Jane’s hopes of happiness and causing her to run away. Choreographer Cathy Marston employs the help of a group of pallidly dressed male dancers to represent Jane’s inner demons. This trick seems gratuitous when we fist meet Jane in the prologue, fleeing across the moors in the wake of her shambolic nuptials, but it soon transpires to be a useful device for physicalizing the twists and turns and constant wrangling inside her head, which are articulated so fulsomely in the book. The men trip her up, get in her way and very forcefully grapple with her – their exchanges are robustly physical and this depiction of Jane’s turmoil ends up being hugely effective, even if the concept takes some getting used to.
At the Richmond Theatre during the London leg of this national tour, Dreda Blow’s entrance as Jane in said prologue was underwhelming to say the least, the dancer seeming to lack intent and thus making the scene difficult to get on board with. Luckily, she picked herself up – and then some – whilst waiting backstage for Antoinette Brooks-Daw to take her turn as the younger incarnation. After we had backtracked to tell the whole story from the beginning, Blow returned refreshed, as a composed yet forthright young governess, displaying nuance, maturity and beautiful lyricism. The tag-team between Blow and Brooks-Daw worked a treat, the latter imbuing the youngster with real force as you felt her boiling indignation at such brazen and consistent mistreatment by those around her. The way that Brooks-Daw had to temper her emotions flowed seamlessly into the grown-up Jane, much aided by Marston’s boldly designed moves that blend markedly modern angularity with more classical romanticism.
And Marston’s skill extends to her characterization, with every main player boasting a discernible personality. It really is clever and brings the story to life. What’s more, the evolution of Jane’s relationship with her Mr Rochester is magnificently clear through their two primary pas de deux, and this consummate story-telling is a rare treat.
When you add in such a delightful score, the result will please any old romantics. Philip Feeney combines his own compositions with a medley of decorous classical excerpts by Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, and Felix’s sister Fanny, whose undulating piano works not only depict the story’s drama but also that belonging to the rugged and rolling terrain amidst which the story is famously set. Combined with the unfussy stage design, bordering on austere, the bleakness alluded to in the book is successfully recreated.
Excellent performances abound, with Javier Torres introducing a bolshie Mr Rochester who we soon realize has more on his mind. He makes a laudable attempt at acting up in age to what is a hefty difference in years, and is an accomplished partner for Blow, the two achieving a poignant and believable chemistry. Swathed in a red dress ripped practically to shreds, Victoria Sibson is wild-eyed and seething with carnal rage as Rochester’s first wife, Bertha Mason, and this contrasts their pretty-in-pink daughter, Adele, danced with impish buoyancy by Rachael Gillespie. There is a snake-hipped Abigail Prudames as the gauche Blanche Ingram and a comically dithering Pippa Moore as the well-meaning housekeeper of Thornhill, Mrs Fairfax.
Loyal Jane Eyre fans have nothing to fear in this new work, which is sensitive yet dynamic, and innovative whilst remaining true to the original. Let’s hope we see many a repeat of it in the Northern Ballet’s future.
Northern Ballet’s production of Jane Eyre is on a UK tour until 18th June 2016. For more information visit the website.