Theatre / “Jane Eyre”. At Canberra Theatre Centre, until May 21. Reviewed by JOHN LOMBARD.
SHAKE & stir theatre co has mastered translating classic fiction into the language of theatre, as proven by a decade of satisfying adaptations such as “Dracula”, “1984” and “Animal Farm”.
Here company artistic directors Nelle Lee and Nick Skubij adapt “Jane Eyre”, Charlotte Brontë’s popular 1847 novel of the miserable experiences of a plain but vibrant governess.
Lee performs the title role with clarity and conviction, supported by a talented ensemble in Julian Garner, Jodie le Vesconte and Sarah McLeod, who populate Jane Eyre’s world with macabre but human characters.
Director Michael Futcher relishes the horror of the bleak opening scenes, but shifts into romantic comedy to build sympathy for the budding love between Jane and Byronic anti-hero Rochester (played by Julian Garner).
This problematic romance has been scrutinised by a hundred years of criticism and analysis, most famously in Jean Rhys’ subversive 1966 anti-Rochester prequel, “Wide Sargasso Sea”.
Garner plays up Rochester’s likeability, but the production does not shirk the visceral dread of his secret in the attic. Inevitably, a modern audience will question Rochester’s self-serving claims and decisions. By contrast, rival suitor St John Rivers (also played by Garner) gets an efficient and spectacular kicking in this script, steering the play towards an unequivocal happy ending.
Excellent design by Josh McIntosh gives the cast an interesting set to play in, supported by ghoulish and effective sound and light. Cast member McLeod also contributes plaintive songs with gentle flair.
Like the company’s “Wuthering Heights” adaptation, allegiance to the source material means the production veers into melodrama, but excess is forgiven as part of the delight of a Brontë story.
“Jane Eyre” successfully distills 500 pages of novel into two tight hours of theatre, for a ghost-train ride of delicious gothic fun.
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