The latest stage version of Jane Eyre is proving a challenge for the cast and an appealing prospect for audiences. Viv Hardwick reports

NADIA CLIFFORD has booked all her “digs” for the six-month tour of Sally Cookson's energetic and imaginative new adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, which has played to acclaim at London's National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic.

Suitcase packed and at the ready, she's felt booking where she's going to stay in each of the 20 dates was a priority. "Early doors because I thought I'm not going to have space in my head for anything else," she says.

"This will be my first tour so I'm really excited about seeing a lot of the places we're going to that I've not been before. I'm up to seeing a lot more of the country because I've never had a chance to travel."

The tour will bring the Manchester born and bred actress to York Grand Opera House in May and Newcastle Theatre Royal in July in the title role. Nadia remains on stage throughout the ensemble piece which is played out on a multi-tiered set with most of the cast playing a variety of characters.

Nadia knew from the start that the production was going to be full-on as her audition was far from ordinary. "Often people will see you for ten or 15 minutes and then you're out the door. Sally really works with you, mining the text in that original audition. That's great because it allows you to play and be free. My first audition was the scene in which Jane is ten years old. Sally said, 'go for it'," explains Nadia during a break in rehearsals.

"There have been a few days where the magnitude of what the show is going to be for me has hit home. It's exciting and I really am relishing the challenge but emotionally and physically I have to pace myself and make sure I get enough sleep. I'm eating well, I'm 'juicing' like crazy, I'm running. Just really looking after myself.

"I don't leave the stage. I'm the only person on stage for the entirety of the show. All my costume changes are on stage. We're hoping it will be thrilling for the audience, but it's a bit like being an athlete in training. We have a movement director with us every day, a voice person, a composer, a fight director, Sally the director, and an assistant director. They're aware how taxing it is."

Cookson opted to stage Jane Eyre because it's a book she loves and has "enjoyed a close relationship with" since being intrigued as a child by Orson Welles's film version. She didn't read the novel until her early twenties and remembers thinking while reading it, “This is a clarion cry for equal opportunities for women not a story about a passive female who will do anything for her hunky bos”'.

She says: "I was struck by how modern Jane seemed - her spirit and strong will, her peculiar and brilliant mind striving for personal freedom to be who she is, lashing out any constraint that prevents her from being herself. She was exactly the sort of person I wanted to be."

Nadia has read Jane Eyre several times, first aged 14 when she "completely and utterly loved it". Her love of Shakespeare, drama and writing put her in the minority at school and she identified with Jane "and the idea of having a world in your head and making up stories". At 23, she read the book again and got even more out of it because of the richness of the language and the way Brontë shows the landscape, an important part and another character in the story.

Being Northern (from Lancashire) Nadia is aware of the responsibility to get the Yorkshire accent right, seeking vocal help from friends from the region. She knows how important the voice is as someone who won their first role in a school production at the age of five because "I had the loudest voice and was the smallest in the class".

Tim Delap also went through a rigorous audition process before being cast as Rochester. He'd heard "amazing things" of the production at Bristol Old Vic and later the National Theatre, but not had the chance to see it.

"It was the most rigorous audition process I've been through. It's such an ensemble show with movement and choral work as well as the big emotional scenes that Jane and Rochester have together. Rochester is quite a physical character so Sally just wanted to put me through my paces at the initial audition. I had two or three recalls, then we paired up with different Janes to see how we worked together. Nadia and I were chosen as the pair."

Tim also gets to play other characters and animals. "It's nice not having to focus on Rochester all the time, but come in playing a little brat, then playing a girl at the school and just being part of the ensemble. It's thrilling and a rollercoaster because it's non-stop. You're constantly playing different characters. It's unlike anything I've done before but thrilling."

He hadn't read the novel but did as soon as he was asked to audition, discovering one of the things that his director is passionate about - that the popular image of the book isn't the reality. "It's seen as a very romantic novel. The cover is all very twee and the picture of Jane is quite a meek and mild character, but she's not at all. She's this incredibly fiery, feisty, powerful woman. This show reflects the energy of the book and hopefully change people's opinion of it," he says.

"Charlotte Brontë's voice is incredibly strong and unique and powerful. It's a brilliant feminist novel about equal rights and the show really puts that across well. Also the love story of Jane and Rochester is not your average love story. There is a real meeting of minds. He's this wealthy, very troubled landowner who has this dark secret and has treated his mentally ill wife in a very dubious way.

"Jane meets him and confronts him. She stands up to him and that changes him. It's a fascinating relationship. Jane doesn't want to get married for the sake of it. Actually she fights against marriage because she doesn't want to be a kept woman. The novel is modern in many ways."

  • Jane Eyre: York Grand Opera House, May 22 to 27. Box Office: 0844-8713024 and
  • Newcastle Theatre Royal, July 3 to 8. 08448-112121 and