Anything but Plain Jane

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Jane Eyre. Soundcheck. Day one. Flames are firing up from beneath metal grates and a hidden smoke machine is working over time. A pianist is hammering the same key over and over, and we're wide-eyed at what we see on stage. Take what you learned about the novel during your angsty GCSE years, roll it up into a tight ball, and let the cat play with it. The National Theatre’s insanely energetic and beautifully crafted adaptation has arrived at The Rep. Brace yourself for a very different take on Brontë.

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The Set // A cross between a climbing frame and gallows, the extraordinary wooden centrepiece provides the cast with a playground on which to perform. And although it looks fun,  it's a seriously demanding stage. "I didn't want an authentic set to suffocate the show, killing the essence and magic of the story," says director, Sally Cookson. "I wanted a set that would show the actors working hard. A set that would show Jane's struggle. She has to go through so much in the story and I wanted to manifest that in the design."

Such is the physical intensity of the show, one of the ladders is nicknamed "the ladder of death" by the cast thanks to its tall, vertical, climb. Try that in a corset and petticoat, a dozen times over, day after day.   

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The Wardrobe // The demanding nature of the production doesn't stop at the set. The costumes themselves play a pivotal role in the protagonist's battle. Jane is portrayed as a child at first, and she grows older as the performance progresses. Every costume change happens in front of the audience, including a particularly important switch. "Jane is corseted and constrained on stage — the female underwear is part of that sense of being repressed," explains Cookson.

"The grey dress she wears for much of the show is very important," adds costume designer Katie Sykes. "I wanted it to be plain and simple but with an elegant shape." It wasn't until dress rehearsals that the team learned the toll such restrictive clothing would take on the part, so stretch panels were added to the bodice. "It's more like a piece of dancewear now," says Sykes. "These aren't whizz-bang outfits. I wanted them to be subtle. I wanted them to disappear sometimes. To not overwhelm what's happening on stage." 

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The Lighting // Colour is a major part of the show. From reds, to blues, to golds, to purples, the stage, though physically consistent in structure is changing colour throughout. To represent storms. To represent the sun. To represent outdoors and in. "It helps us move the story along," says associate director Hannah Drake. "It helps us keep the pace up. There's an iconic room in the novel called the red-room, which explains the red. But the palettes are also a nod to Jane's emotional journey."

The aforementioned flames, though unlikely to fall under the lighting department's remit, add extraordinary flashes of colour and intensity. "Jane as a character has two elements to her: air and fire," says Drake. "What better way to portray the latter than, literally, having fire on stage? It really is something to behold." She ain't wrong. 

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The Music // Slap-bang in the middle of the organised chaos sits a band around which the cast perform and the story evolves. "I knew that music was going to play a very important part in the production," says the director. " I love being able to tell parts of the story without text. Often in theatre music is sidelined and musicians are in a backroom, or the music is recorded, even! I think we're missing a trick there. Audiences love seeing who is creating the music. It's not a distraction. The music is intrinsic and the band were always going to be centre stage." 

The soundtrack gives this production an intensely cinematic and darkly gothic quality. The majority of the tracks are originals but they're punctuated with three show-stopping cover versions. Think Noel Coward. Think Elvis. And if we were to say think Gnarls Barkley, would you say we're crazy? Probably.   

Jane Eyre continues until September 16. Tickets are from £15.