Saturday 17 August 2013

Theatre Review: Jane Eyre, Shanghai Ballet, London Coliseum

Fan Xiaofeng as Bertha Mason
The programme for the Shanghai Ballet’s Jane Eyre at the London Coliseum stresses the popularity of Bronte’s novel in China – ‘it is a must-read for lovers of great writing and English language learners’. And, if the production is anything to go by, copies of The Madwoman in the Attic must be selling well there too. This is very much Jane Eyre, The Psychological Drama. Bertha (Fan Xiaofeng) and Jane (Xiang Jieyan) are onstage together through much of the performance, dancing in turn with Rochester (Wu Husheng) or mirroring each other’s movements. The production focuses on Thornfield, dispensing with Jane’s early life and beginning with her arrival at the house, to such an extent that the scene at the Rivers’ house feels strangely out of place. The ballet makes this a story about one man and two women, who may be aspects of each other.

The way this is staged is at times very effective. The production plays with the watcher and the watched, Bertha or Jane gliding past the great windows of the house much like the title character in The Woman in Black, Jane and Rochester rarely left alone even when they believe themselves to be so. The set is very bare save the windows behind, but both costume and set convey the period, without losing this minimalist feel. At times things become a lot more abstract – a chorus of male dancers perform the two fires, along with brilliant lighting effects. And Bertha’s dance inside a Perspex box worked curiously well given its incongruity.

Wu Husheng as Rochester and Zhou Jiawen as Blanche
The production made me think about the reception of Bronte’s story, even if it did not bring much out of the original. Removing the character of Adele meant that Jane seemed an archetypal virgin arriving at a great Gothic mansion, surrounded by the dark silhouettes of great trees. Concentrating so extensively on Bertha (as Jane’s rival and double) meant the role of Blanche Ingram seemed a little superfluous. Both impulses - highlighting the novel’s Gothic inheritance and theorising it based solely on the role of Bertha – have, I think, been very damaging in critical treatments of the novel in the last forty years, but it was fascinating to see these critical preferences played out in a different medium. The use of well-known pieces of classical music in the score – Greensleeves, Elgar, Debussy – also seemed an interesting reflection on the novel’s canonicity.

As a viewing experience, the ballet must have been extremely hard to follow without a very good knowledge of the novel, but it was visually exciting, beautifully danced and fast-moving. The music was a little uneven – occasionally over-repetitive, and almost painful when up in higher registers (presumably to indicate Jane’s anguished state). Dance was a very effective way to suggest relationships between characters and their relative status – formalised, repeated movements marked the formal deference of the housekeeper Mrs Fairfax, the narrowing space between Jane and Rochester conveyed the progression of their relationship, and the pivotal moment of the production was when Bertha finally touched Jane. I wasn't sure how you would go about turning a Victorian novel into a ballet – this production offered one answer, and the vast array of choices they could have made indicate the richness of the material they were working with.

Bertha, Rochester and Jane
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  1. Wow great review! I was so curious about this production - I wish I could see it! It seems like it has some things which I would not embrace (I'm not a particular fan of Bertha being a side of Jane) and it seems odd that Adele is not there, there's no indication of why Jane is there? But seeing the relationships of the characters in dance would be so interesting, and I would love to see how the Classical pieces worked with it.

    1. Thanks, Charlene! It was definitely really interesting. While I agree with you on Bertha in the novel, I understand why they made this choice. It is hard to explain complex plots in dance and so I think they focussed on this sort of love triangle as that's a relatively straightforward emotional situation to convey. But in doing this it not only didn't make sense (no Adele) but did weirdly reflect critical trends, while the dark landscapes and overtly Gothic house gestured towards popular ideas about the Brontes, and especially Wuthering Heights I thought. Would have loved to read more about their rationale for the music - there wasn't much more on this in the programme!