It’s two years since Sally Cookson’s production of Jane Eyre – which premiered in 2014 as a two-part play at the Bristol Old Vic – first came to the National Theatre, but as it returns for a second run in the capital (albeit with a new cast) it shows no sign of fatigue.
There’s a neat economy in the way the fixed set, like the cast, plays many parts; a skeletal structure provides a raised platform that is by turns a refuge, a sick bed, a dressing room. Against its stillness the cast’s movement is frenetic, as they clamber up and down ladders and run between pillars, apparently without much purpose.
One figure, though, moves with slow deliberation: Bertha Mason (Melanie Marshall), present from the outset as a sort of one-woman chorus and only later revealed as Rochester’s first wife. It’s a wisely understated take on the madwoman in the attic; her voice is haunting, while her physical restraint hints at menace, and violence is merely suggested by the vivid red of her dress.
As Jane, Nadia Clifford is the only other actor to play just one character, although she must embody both the unruly child and the mature governess, which she does well. Against the spare, industrial set Jane often appears elemental, gathering more control of the world around her as she ages; rain envelops her as a child at Gateshead, while at Thornfield gusts of wind embrace her, blowing at her dress and, later, suspending her wedding veil in mid-air. Fire, of course, destructive but also absolving, follows her.
In this the novel’s original sense of passions restrained and unloosed is clearly present, although Brontë purists may find fault with some of the production’s omissions, or elisions. Not much is made of Jane’s inheritance from her uncle, for example, which renders her return to Rochester an entirely romantic gesture, when in fact it’s also a practical one.
It also means that the production – which is long at more than three hours, including a 20-minute an interval – feels hurried at the finish, and almost slow at the start. But once the pace picks up, the action becomes involvingly kinetic, though inevitably it’s the stiller moments that have the most power.