Shanghai Ballet Company – Jane Eyre – London

Fan Xiaofeng as Bertha Mason in <I>Jane Eyre</I>.<br />© Zhao Lu. (Click image for larger version)
Fan Xiaofeng as Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre.
© Zhao Lu. (Click image for larger version)

Shanghai Ballet Company
Jane Eyre

London, Coliseum
14 August 2013

Distilling a novel into a narrative ballet is a tricky task: there are often far too many characters and plot lines to fit comfortably into the real-time experience of a live performance. The choreographer Patrick de Bana has taken on the task of adapting Jane Eyre for the Shanghai Ballet Company, together with writer Yu Rongjun, and their solution is to prune characters and narrative ruthlessly to concentrate the action on the three main characters, the governess Jane, her employer Mr Rochester and his “mad” wife Bertha who, unknown to Jane, is confined to the attic. This perhaps is what everyone recalls from Charlotte Bronte’s much-loved novel, but though this renders the story manageable in two acts of 45 minutes each, it omits much of what made the original so compelling and leaves us with a rather more generic unhappy love story.

Out goes all of Jane’s childhood and her poverty, and her uncertain status in the world which lend such grit to the novel. There is no hint of the differences of class between her and her employer, nor of the power of money which figures so strongly in the novel. The only reminder of her past is the ghostly figure of Helen Burns, a dead childhood school-friend, who flutters a tubercular handkerchief. Oddly the character of Rochester’s ward, who accounts for Jane’s presence as a governess, is omitted, as is Grace Poole, who keeps Bertha locked away. We begin with Jane approaching Thornfield Hall, and the first half takes us to the disastrous conclusion to Jane’s planned wedding to Rochester. In the second half she leaves Thornfield, encounters St John Rivers and his sisters, and eventually returns to Thornfield after the fire and death of Bertha. Without some familiarity with the story beforehand, this may not be easy to follow.

Preview of Shanghai Ballet Company in Jane Eyre.

De Bana’s pruning of the source material shapes the narrative in a different way. Bertha is on stage much of the time, visible to Rochester but not to Jane or others. He says he sees her as “my hero”. This certainly gives the opportunity for many danced confrontations and makes Rochester’s duplicity more clear. But de Bana does not give us a clear new view of Bertha, whether in fact she is mad or not, or just distraught, or where the root cause of her anguish lies. The choreography is emotional and yet somehow unspecific.

It is performed with great commitment by the cast. Fan Xiaofeng as Bertha melts from one anguished stance to another. Wu Husheng is an undeniably Byronic Rochester, wearing tight black satin pants and a sneer with aplomb. Ji Pingping’s Jane has a quiet tenderness but not perhaps the steeliness of the character in the novel. De Bana uses an energetic and very disciplined male corps as the rocks out on the moor and the flames which consume the building. Their dancing has a hint of martial arts to it. An ensemble of women in the ball scene is more conventionally decorous and pretty. The standard of dancing is high throughout with very vivid and crisply executed cameos from Zhang Yao as Bertha’s brother, Richard Mason, who explodes onto the stage to stop the wedding, and from Zhang Wenjun as St. John Rivers.

Poster image for Jane Eyre.© Shanghai Ballet Company. (Click image for larger version)
Poster image for Jane Eyre.
© Shanghai Ballet Company. (Click image for larger version)

De Bana is very well served by his set and costume designer. Jérôme Kaplan, who has previously provided luscious designs for the National Ballet of China’s Raise the Red Lantern, but here generally operates in a more restrained colour scheme, with the costumes a mix of Victorian and modern. The woods outside Thornfield Hall are beautifully, sparely evoked. The dresses at the ball simple and undecorated, but in jewel colours. The most memorable image is Bertha standing under Jane’s stolen wedding veil in a shower of red petals.

The work is danced to a collage of recorded music from a wide variety of sources (Elgar, Britten, Dowland and “Etc”).

This is the UK debut of the Shanghai Ballet Company and it is brave of them to bring a new production to London at a time when the Bolshoi is in residence. The mayor of Shanghai provides an enthusiastic statement of support in the programme. Boris Johnson responds on the opposite page in welcome though it is hard to imagine him making a similar statement in support of one of our own companies. It would be good to see this company and these dancers again in some of their other productions, ideally with orchestral support, and I hope they return.

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