'I share her inner world,' says Chen Shu of her role as Jane Eyre.
Chen Shu is best known for playing high-society courtesans. So her turn as the title role in Jane Eyre, currently at the National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA), came as a surprise.
She embodies the role of the governess of Thornfield Manor so thoroughly that the moment she walks on stage there is nothing left of that elegant and coquettish image often associated with her.
She starts as a restrained and self-conscious young woman, but somewhere around the middle of the play, when she confronts her employer Edward Rochester with her understanding of love it is an emotional roller coaster all the way through to the end.
The power of her performance was so overwhelming that at the dress rehearsal I attended many in the audience were moved to tears.
Most educated Chinese know Jane Eyre through translations of the classic and some of the screen adaptations - the one starring George C Scott and Susannah York, in 1970, stands out for its stellar dubbing job.
The NCPA production owes much to this movie. Yet it is a thoroughly original and ingenious production. In a sense, this stage version is more cinematic than the film. The plot is tighter and more fluid and Jane's childhood appears in flashbacks, which makes it more poignant.
"I play Jane as someone with great inner power," said Chen in a post-performance interview.
During the play's widely acclaimed first run earlier this year, Yuan Quan, another actress also known mostly for her film and television work, got the whole town talking. But Chen was not intimidated. "I'll bring my own interpretation to the role."
Chen first read the literary classic at the age of 14, "when I was at dance school". Like most awkward teenagers, she identified with the protagonist because of the quiet suffering, the lack of love, care and respect. "This is a part that had a huge impact on those born in China in the 1960s all through the early 80s," she said.
Jane Eyre resonates with contemporary Chinese for her fiercely independent mind and her demand for respect. Her decision to leave Rochester after she learns of the existence of his wife stands in sharp contrast with the prevailing notion in China that women fare better being a paramour to a man with wealth and property than marrying for love alone.
"I identify with Jane Eyre because I share her inner world," Chen said. Her previous stage role was Chen Bailu, a 1930s courtesan, in Sunrise (), one of China's best-known plays. She played the gold-digger with a heart of gold. After that run, critics called her the "definitive" Chen Bailu.
Jane Eyre played by Chen Shu and Edward Rochester by Wang Luoyong in the new drama Jane Eyre.
Yet, deep in her heart, there is a Jane Eyre lurking. "I didn't know I'd be offered this role. I was given only 10 days to rehearse - with a team that was already immersed in it. But I jumped at the opportunity because it is such a rich role and I could get under the skin and recreate her faith and integrity," Chen said.
Chen did not start by playing courtesans. Twelve years ago, she made her speaking-role stage debut in another show with a governess. For full disclosure, I was one of the producers and directors of The Sound of Music, and one of my jobs was to find the "seven von Trapp kids".
China's education system favors specialization. The result is, those who are trained to sing cannot dance, and those who dance cannot act. But I needed actors who could sing, dance and act.
Chen was a trained dancer and a natural singer. She could handle I'm 16 Going on 17 with aplomb. But could she act? It was a pleasant surprise.
"You gave me a sheet of dialogue. After I read it through, you gave the part to me," she recalled. This was a detail I did not quite remember, but I knew she was perfect for the role of von Trapp's eldest daughter.
I can't take the credit for "discovering" Chen the star, however. Like Zhang Ziyi, she quit her dance career and enrolled at the Central Academy of Drama. She emerged as a serious actress with a string of television roles, some of which were huge successes.
While watching her Jane Eyre, I thought it is ironic how things turn out sometimes: Chen started her acting career by playing the daughter and now she has graduated to the governess, though in different plays. It has come full circle.
Jane Eyre is at NCPA until Dec 23.