Review - Jane Eyre - Shanghai Ballet at The Coliseum

This summer saw Shanghai Ballet’s London debut with an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, a novel often cited as being quintessentially English even though it has universal themes of love, betrayal and sacrifice. Choreographed by Patrick De Bana, this production transforms the story from heroine Jane’s autobiography to a love triangle which brings more focus on Rochester’s first wife and “mad woman in the attic” Bertha Mason. Rather than starting off with Jane’s traumatic childhood, the production begins with her arrival at Thornfield Hall which can confuse readers of the novel.The only reference given to Jane’s past is the ghost of her friend Helen who jaggedly circles around her during moments of solitude.

Patrick De Bana states that he was drawn to the character of Bertha and that was apparent in the choreography for the role as masterfully played by Fan Xiaofeng - passionate, vulnerable and with a growing sense of heartbreak, moving quickly en pointe like a angry moth trapped in a jar, as Rochester’s love for Jane develops.

There was a strong erotic chemistry between Xiaofeng’s Bertha and Wu Husheng’s swaggering gentleman Rochester, the latter torn between love and hate while the former desperately clings on. Bertha is also given the most striking scenes in the production such as the dramatic vision after Jane and Rochester’s disastrous wedding where, shining in a bright spotlight while onlookers are drowned in darkness, Bertha throws on a long white veil and red petals descend upon her as she looks up to the heavens.

Xiang Jieyan’s Jane Eyre was the polar opposite to Xiaofeng’s Bertha - child-like and incredibly restrained. Jane’s interaction with Rochester showed none of the physical sensuality as displayed with Bertha but that just further highlighted the contrast between the two women who come from very different backgrounds. To a certain extent Jieyan’s Jane reminded me of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s take on the same part in Franco Zeffirelli’s film production with emotions under wraps rather than publicly displayed.

The set designs were fittingly dark and gothic yet stark. The corps de ballet were part of the scenery by playing natural objects and elements such as rocks and the fire that eventually destroys Thornfield Hall and greets Bertha Mason with her dramatic end. Music selected for Jane Eyre was mixed and included very familiar pieces such as Greensleeves and Debussy’s Clair de Lune, both of which are probably too closely associated with other time periods or forms of entertainment which was distracting (I kept thinking of an old Chanel ad throughout Clair de Lune).

Shanghai Ballet’s Jane Eyre was beautifully and sensitively choreographed. A lot of feeling strongly conveyed, particularly by Xiaofeng’s Bertha who is given a voice in this adaptation unlike the novel where she is just an abstract force of anger. Overall, a compelling if not completely flawless production and I look forward to seeing what Shanghai Ballet comes up with for their next visit to London.


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