A Worthy UK Debut by Shanghai Ballet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Shanghai Ballet’s Jane Eyre: Soloists and dancers of the Shanghai Ballet. London Coliseum, London, 14.8.2013. (JPr)

Shanghai Ballet's Fan Xiaofeng as Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre photo by Zhao Lu.
Shanghai Ballet’s Fan Xiaofeng as Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre. Photo by Zhao Lu.

Xiang Jieyan – Jane Eyre
Wu Husheng – Edward Rochester
Fan Xiaofeng – Bertha Mason

Patrick de Bana – choreographer
Jérôme Kaplan – set and costume design

I must begin by writing how I have managed to reach a fairly advanced age without having encountered Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre before, either as a book or in any of its television, theatrical or film adaptations. Brontë seems very popular in China and in a ‘coals to Newcastle’ exercise the Shanghai Ballet have brought their contemporary version of Jane Eyre to London. A little research showed that the ‘playwright’ who adapted the story, Yu Rongjun, has said that the ballet focuses ‘on the love triangle between Rochester, Jane Eyre and Bertha, with a lot of conflict and tension’. (This ‘triangle idea’ was backed up, if totally unintentionally, in a printed programme where the original Chinese had been translated by ‘Google translate’ or something similar and the synopsis noted that the ballet ends with Rochester, Bertha and Jane turning ‘into three angles’! In fact the whole English translation needed degrees of re-interpretation but I appreciated the good intentions behind it all.)

To be honest this was one of the more interesting evenings of a diverse summer season of ballet at the London Coliseum. However a good understanding of the original story would be useful to follow the narrative as it unfolds in a number of individual scenes concentrating on the two people central to the story while expanding the role of Bertha, Rochester’s first wife, who is usually just the ‘mad woman in the attic’ with the urge for pyromania. Most of the other characters become mere cyphers though we do see Mrs Fairfax (housekeeper of Thornfield Hall), Blanche Ingram (who Rochester uses to make Jane jealous), Richard Mason (Bertha’s brother), as well as, St John Rivers and his sisters. St John proposes to Jane as he wants her to accompany him to India where he will be a missionary. We see him confess his love to Jane but the dramatic context was missing. Nevertheless there was some attempt to recreate the central themes of social criticism, love, betrayal and forgiveness in Brontë’s original morality tale.

In this version of the story Helen Burns, Jane’s childhood friend who dies young, is given significant prominence as a wraith who spookily appears from time to time. In fact there is quite a Gothic feel to the whole ballet (emphasising that part of the novel) as Bertha (Li Chenchen) is another spectral figure, ‘shrouded’ throughout in white and with long black hair. Helen and Bertha could be Yūrei who are Japanese ghost girls – that have now become familiar to many from their home-grown horror films – as both seem to be haunting Jane and are designed to make her veer away from the course of true love.

Jérôme Kaplan’s designs sees it all basically danced on a bare stage with just a hint of Thornfield Hall and its gloomy moorland isolation as backdrops aided by some atmospheric lighting; his costumes seem eclectic with Victorian bustles and some modern chic. The music is recorded and credits Elgar, Britten, Dowland, Debussy, Barber, De Maistre and Villa-Lobos etc. Actually some music not in this list was also predominantly used; medieval lute music, including Greensleeves,and Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Despite a wonderful love duet for Rochester and Jane, danced to Debussy’s romantic Clair de lune, this would have all been so much better had it been an original score. Here the recorded music was not as distracting as it can be mainly because Patrick de Bana’s contemporary choreography – even though most of the women were en pointe nearly throughout – was only reliant on the mood the music was setting, similar to how the score of a cinema film generally emphasises what we see rather than determining how the drama unfolds. A small energetic ensemble of the Shanghai Ballet dancers filled in the narrative by reappearing as rocks, ghosts or party guests. Better still, they embodied the flickering flames burning through Rochester’s bedroom (to a Sea Interlude from Britten’s Peter Grimes) and that eventually burn down Thornfield into a suitably skeletal ruin.

The tall, slender, flexible Fan Xiaofeng was an impressive wan-looking Bertha, her obsessive love for Rochester was clear in every flail of her arms or raised fists. At times she physically clings to him as if we were not already sure how desperately in love she actually still is. Her finest moments are at the end of the first half when, veiled, she chillingly relives her wedding as red rose petals shower down and then at the start of the second part, in a very moving vignette, we she Bertha struggle to force her way out of the glass box that represents her confinement.

To be honest, Wu Husheng, with his clean, fluid style, and the neat and tidy Xiang Jieyan, are never totally convincing as Rochester and Jane and I didn’t feel his passion for her, nor her attraction for – and self-doubt – about him. Their encounters needed greater sexual tension and that was seen, somewhat strangely, in Jane’s pas de deux with St John Rivers (the dynamic Zhang Wenjun) where she did seem to respond to his affections in a totally different way to her encounters with Rochester.

For those unfamiliar with the Brontë original the story after the interval seems to race to a conclusion with more than a little confusion in the story-telling: however the final scene is very effective as, once Jane has redeemed Rochester after the suicide of Bertha, we see all three of them removing their outer clothing and then sitting side-by-side as angels (not angles of course) in a way that the director of the Shanghai Ballet, Xin Lili, has explained ‘is meant to indicate that they finally removed their masks in the earthly life, and forgave each other.’

This was a very poignant end to a worthy attempt to take a classic story and reinvent it as a modern full-length ballet, thus bringing characters from off the page and onto the stage. The Shanghai Ballet were making their first visit to the UK and because of the high standard of this evening would be welcomed back by me anytime if they bring something as good as this again. I would conclude that occasionally for such intimate choreography it was a little lost on the vast London Coliseum stage and it might have worked even better at Sadler’s Wells.

Jim Pritchard

For more about future ballet performances at the London Coliseum visit http://www.eno.org/.