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Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre at Sadler’s Wells

Choreographer Cathy Marston updates Charlotte Brontë’s classic, Jane Eyre, for a #MeToo generation.

Bringing a novel of almost 400 pages to the stage is no easy task, however Cathy Marston accomplishes this with elegance and ease in the Northern Ballet’s current production of Jane Eyre. Marston’s adaptation faithfully distills the core of Brontë’s classic into two acts and eight scenes (and a running time of just under two hours), thus intensifying the action. With a humble set, diverse cast and subtle costume details, this Jane Eyre tells a deeply complex, uniquely feminine, not to mention feminist, coming-of-age story.

From the opening Marston creates a stark contrast between Jane, who begins in typical nineteenth-century empire dress, and the stripped-back, pastel-grey stage. The simplicity of the scenery, which consists mainly of large abstract canvases that break-up the stage space, foregrounds the emotional intensity that the Northern Ballet troupe evoke through their characteristic skill and technique. Especially impressive are the haunting sextet of danseurs that shadow and harass Jane at key moments throughout her story. As personifications of her inner turmoil during times of hardship, these virile specters offer an unexpected interpretation of Brontë’s original.

Rachael Gillespie as Young Jane in Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre. Photo by Emma Kauldhar.

In Marston’s retelling, the development of choreography and costume both prove particularly effective. As a young orphan Jane’s movement is angular and stiff-looking, and initially her dust-coloured dress mirrors this physical awkwardness. As the piece gathers pace, both her attire and choreography appear more delicate and lyrical, with the playful high-side slits of her skirt highlight the restless footwork of an energetic, yet tormented, child. This development of movement and dress is paralleled throughout the ballet, seamlessly matching the sharp transitions of Jane from a young orphan to a student, a teacher, an innocent lover and eventually a mature woman. As she progresses into adulthood Jane’s lyrical dresses become more conservative: longer in length, more restricted in their swing with fabric colour becoming darker. The continual change of attire, with all its symbolism and choreographic parallels, beautifully builds to the night of the fire, where Jane, in a sensually-fitted white night gown, saves Rochester in what Marston has reimagined as an intimate, bonding moment.

Hannah Bateman as Jane and Joseph Taylor as Mr Rochester in Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre. Photo by Emma Kauldhar.

In this scene, the chemistry between Hannah Bateman (Jane) and Joseph Taylor (Edward Rochester), expressed in a carefully crafted leitmotif that the lovers repeat, make the other scenes in the school and with St. John recede to the background. Even the fiery appearance of Rochester’s mad first wife, dressed in a fittingly extravagant cadmium-red gown, pales in comparison to the energy that Jane and Rochester bring to the stage as a duo. There is electric tension between these two dancers, conveyed by alternating between reserved glances and wild pirouettes. In their pas de deux, such tension is evoked again through the repetition of various moves: facing one another, they each try to outstep the other in a battle of dégagés that eventually ends in an unexpected playful kick, setting one of them off-balance. Although brisk and domineering, Rochester is tipped and stumbles in their signature exchange. He has evidently met his match.

Hannah Bateman as Jane and Joseph Taylor as Mr Rochester in Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre. Photo by Emma Kauldhar.

True to Brontë’s classic, Marston’s finale unites Jane with the man she loves. In Edward’s arms, they are both blissfully at ease on a darkened stage. And yet, as the curtain begins to fall and the spotlight shifts, only one of them leaves the darkness behind. Make no mistake, the figure who chooses to steadily follow and step into the light is Jane Eyre

Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre was performed at Sadler’s Wells between 16th-19th May and will be showing at The Lowry, Salford, from 6th-9th June. For more information see here: https://northernballet.com