Not-so-plain Jane

Beijing adaptation of an English classic sells out

Not-so-plain Jane

Attractive Eyre: is Yuan Quan too beautiful to play Jane?

Chairman Mao would no doubt be horrified to hear that Jane Eyre is being staged in Beijing. Quite aside from being a bourgeois liberal text, there is also the inconvenient fact that Jane’s least favourite place is called the Red-room.

However, the days when ‘Red China’ forcibly banned the classics of Western culture – such as Charlotte Bronte’s novel – have long gone. Jane Eyre has just ended a sellout 10 day run at the National Grand Theatre, where it was performed in Chinese.

The story of an English governess who falls in love with her married boss (to boil the plot down to its basics) has appealed to local audiences. The Beijing News reports that many theatre-goers even shed tears as Jane and her lover Rochester are reunited at the play’s climax.

In fact, the only real controversy appears to be over whether the actress playing Jane – Yuan Quan – is simply too good looking for the part.

Readers of WiC will recall that this is not the first time such a debate has occurred. In issue 5 we featured an article about the Chinese remake of TV series Ugly Betty, named Ugly Wudi. Commentators were arguing that the actress cast in the role (Li Xinru) was more of a Beautiful Betty.

Film star Yuan Quan – whose roles include Once Upon a Time in Shanghai and Pretty Big Feet – has never had to defend her looks before. But the Beijing Youth Daily reports that when she appeared at a press event to promote the new production, journalists queried whether she was too beautiful for the role – since Bronte’s heroine Jane is supposed to be rather plain. A rather embarrassed Yuan blushed and hung her head; the play’s director, Wang Xiaoying, meanwhile assured the press that it would not be a problem since “make-up can be used to make her look more ordinary.”

It seems he was right. In an audience poll conducted by the Beijing News, 90% believed that Yuan’s Jane did justice to the novel, conveying the character’s ‘calm, introverted and persistent personality’.

The casting of Wang Luoyong as leading man, Rochester aroused less debate. Wang rose to prominence outside China – appearing 2,500 times in the Broadway show Miss Saigon. The experience has made him one of the country’s few bilingual actors, although he also has eight years of training to be a Peking Opera singer on his resume.

But when Wang first arrived in the US, he flunked an oral interview for the Louisiana State University’s drama programme. He was then referred to a voice coach who took an innovative approach to improving Wang’s accent, insisting that he chew on a wine cork while speaking. After a year his pronunciation had improved so dramatically that he was admitted to Boston University’s drama school.

After graduation he starred in Miss Saigon from 1991 to 2001. He has since appeared in English language movies, such as The White Countess, as well as Chinese films and TV series.

Jane Eyre marked his return to the theatre. “As an actor, I really like the stage,” he told China Daily. “But when director Wang called me to do Jane Eyre, I was hesitant. I doubted whether today’s audiences would be interested in such an old story. I was also not sure whether a Chinese adaption of an English classic would be good. But although Charlotte Bronte wrote the book in the 1840s, many of its themes such as morality, class discrimination and gender relations still matter today.”

It turns out that his reservations were misplaced. The Beijing News says feedback has been stellar, and the play will return next summer, for another run.

Not bad for a plain Jane.

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