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Madeleine Worrall - Playing Jane Eyre

When Madeleine Worrall steps out onto the stage tomorrow night to play the title role in a new stage version of Charlotte Bronte's novel, Jane Eyre, it won't just be the audience at the National Theatre who will be watching. As part of the NT Live initiative, a live feed of Sally Cookson's production, originally seen at Bristol Old Vic in 2014, will be screened simultaneously in more than 650 cinemas across the UK. In Scotland alone some fifty-four cinemas will show the production. All of which sounds more than a little bit daunting for the Edinburgh born actress, who remains onstage throughout the show.

“It is a bit terrifying for us,” she admits. “We think we're just doing it in front of the audience in the theatre, but we're actually being seen in cinemas all over. I'm trying not to think about it to be honest, but the NT Live people are being very clear that we're not trying to make a film, but are filming a theatre performance, with everything that goes with that. They're telling us not to change anything, and to not put on our close-up faces or anything ridiculous like that. I'm onstage throughout, which is exhilarating, but there'll be a lot of sweat flying about which you'll see onscreen.”

Taking on one of the most iconic figures in literature has not been without its difficulties for Worrall.

“A lot of people have said to me that the way I play Jane is not what they expected from it,” she says. “I recoiled when I first heard that. I first read Jane Eyre when I was thirteen, and I want to be true to the book, so I asked what they meant. They said that the way we do it, Jane is so fiery and so sparky, but if you read the book, that's what she's like.

“Those dreadful pictures on the covers of the book don't help. A lot of Jane's fire is in her mind - the full title of the book is Jane Eyre – An Autobiography - and one of the biggest problems is how you bring that inner rage onto a stage. Jane learns the hard way very early on that she has to keep her passions under control, and she becomes very wilful, but there's this extraordinary brain still ticking. She is a fiery, angry wild child.”

The last time Worrall was seen in the flesh on a stage in Scotland was in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, writer David Greig and director Wils Wilson's twenty-first century reinvention of border ballads, which was toured around pubs by the National Theatre of Scotland. Before that she played the title role in Orlando, Cryptic's radical multi-media reworking of Virginia Woolf's epic poem.

It was Ben Harrison, director of Edinburgh-based site-specific company, Grid Iron, who recommended Worrall to Cryptic director Cathie Boyd after she played Mrs Darling in Harrison's production of Peter Pan in a purpose-built tent in Kensington Gardens. Worrall went on to play Wendy in a very different take on Peter Pan in a production at Bristol Old Vic directed by Cookson, who went on to cast Worrall as Jane Eyre.

“Sally is very good at reversing expectations,” Worrall says. “Wendy is often seen as Peter's sidekick, but little girls are bossy, and have very strong ideas in terms of knowing what they want.”

Worrall grew up in the colonies of Edinburgh's Abbeyhill district, and attended the city's Mary Erskine School.

“I'd love to do The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie one day,” Worrall says, unconsciously slipping back into an Edinburgh accent. “You can't go to Mary Erskine's and not have that in sight.”

Worrall joined Edinburgh Acting School, and later on the National Youth Theatre.

“I definitely had a natural interest in acting,” she says, “but I never knew what I would do with it. I always felt rather stupid academically, so I felt I had to prove myself somehow. I became determined to do well, and made it my personal challenge. That was my Jane Eyre side.”

Worrall's determination got her into Cambridge, and eventually to drama school. Her first professional role on a Scottish stage came playing opposite Brian Cox in Uncle Varick, John Byrne's 1960s take on Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. Worrall has a framed picture on her wall of Byrne's drawing of her character, Shona, Byrne's version of Sonya, “in her dungarees and batty old jacket, realising what she could be.”

Worrall's approach to Jane Eyre remains equally singular.

“It's about self-determination and living life on your own terms without damaging other people,” she says of the current production. “Personally, it's thrilling to be part of what seems to be a wave of great women characters being seen onstage, which is something that hasn't always been the case.

“I think what doing Jane Eyre has taught me is that the work that makes me happiest are exhilarating adventures like this, where you're devising it and creating it as well as performing it. I'm not sure what it will be like doing something with a script again after this. This show obliterates me,” she says. “Look out for the sweat.”

Jane Eyre can be seen as part of NT Live at cinemas across Scotland on December 8.
www.ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk

The Herald, December 7th 2015

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