You don’t often go to outdoor theatre and find yourself moved by an intimate piece of theatre. You go for the spectacle, for the laughs. Outdoor theatre is usually a bit slapstick, a bit roguish. There’s no place for nuance in a show that might have to fight against wind and rain, or occasionally heat and midges, when people have come for a picnic with their friends and a bit of entertainment in the background.
But in Heartbreak Productions’ new show, Jane Eyre, we get both: the power of great theatre and the spectacle of outdoors entertainment. It’s a fine combination.
Jane Eyre is closely based on Charlotte Brontë’s novel, but rather than treat it as a love story, writer and director Emma Hodkinson sees it as a story of escape. Jane moves from cage to cage, represented by a huge structure in the middle of the stage. First she is trapped in Gateshead Manor where she is taken in as a foundling and cruelly treated by John Reed and his mother. From here the pattern is set: Jane is an alien, and as such she is ripe for abuse.
But she has something in her favour, though it doesn’t bring her much comfort. It is her spirit and her resolution to always be true to herself. This a dangerous for a woman in 19th century England. But her spirit helps her cope with the rigours of Lowood Hall, where the cruel Mr Brocklehurst keeps the institution’s children in a state of near starvation.
Eventually she graduates to become a teacher there, serving the very institution that oppresses her. But Jane has learned to walk a fragile tightrope. She cannot protest too much. And so she moves on to become a governess at Thornfield Hall, where as we know she meets and falls for the handsome Mr Rochester.
But this brief happiness turns out to be another trap, for his offer of marriage is false. He is already married. And so she escapes again, this time to the home of St John Rivers, an evangelical minister with ambitions to become a missionary, a role for which Jane seems, to him, well suited. She escapes again and returns to Thornfield, where she finds Mr Rochester now a widower but blind. No need to escape now.
The clever trick which this show performs is to have the image of a circus running throughout as a kind of framing device, both visually and in the narrative. It could so easily have been clumsy and intrusive, but it is pitched just right so that the conceit does not overwhelm the story. Jane survives, and in Faye Lord’s vigorous and moving performance, she dances to the tune of her own feisty spirit.
As indeed do the whole cast, who morph effortlessly through a multitude of roles. Together they give us some amazing physical theatre using simple props to fabulous effect. I was just as hooked on the spectacle and as I was delighted at the story.