Paula Rego's studio is hidden behind a small, shabby door in a dingy back passage moments away from the roaring London traffic. There is no number on the door and it takes a few minutes, and a few inquiries, to discover that this is (according to the workmen next door) the entrance to Paula's studio. I knock doubtfully and wait. Suddenly, the door opens and Paula appears. Like a door in a fairy story, it takes you out of one world and into another. For a moment, I think that the room is full of people, that Paula is not alone, and then I realise that the vast studio is peopled by her paintings and extraordinary props.
The studio - half playroom, half theatre - is alive with possibility. There is a sea of dressing-up clothes and ancient children's toys: a stuffed dog, a huge plastic horse, and two giant papier mache rabbits, one carrying the other in its arms. Then there are the pictures. All around me are images that have sprung to life from the pages of Jane Eyre.
Paula and I met for the first time at the opening night of my play After Mrs Rochester. I had written to her explaining that she had been a huge influence on my work. That I had returned again and again over the years to her pictures for inspiration. My play, as its title suggests, is about the mad woman from Jane Eyre and her legacy. It was not until the play was nearly written that I read in a newspaper article that Paula's latest paintings were inspired by Jane Eyre.
So there I stood in Paula's studio, looking about me at Bronte's world brought to life, extraordinary and terrifying. Out of the darkness of charcoal and ink and paint, the creatures of Bronte's imagination came crowding. There is Lowood, the school where Jane is a pupil. We see her, a tiny figure, face to the wall, hidden behind a gigantic man. We can sense that some terrible act is about to happen. The room is full of girls and women, watching, nervous, straining to see but afraid of being seen. There is an atmosphere of palpable fear, of violence. This is the school where young women are shorn of their curls. The school that promised to "mortify in these girls the lusts of the flesh". Where female sexuality is a crime.
The sense of the danger of being seen, of being visible, runs through the pictures. There is an astonishing painting of Jane looking out from behind a red curtain, both cautious and curious. Hungry for life but afraid of stepping out into the light and risking humiliation. But we know, we sense, that Jane will step out. It is this courage to enter the world, a place where women are at best a decoration, at worst invisible, that characterises Jane and makes her one of English literature's greatest heroines. Proud, prickly and fiercely independent, Jane personifies Bronte's own struggle. The longing to be known, to be seen, struggles against the crushing fear of rejection.
In the next painting, we see Rochester in the centre of the room, in front of the same red curtain. He, unlike Jane, stares straight ahead, as if in provocation, daring us to come forward (is it Jane he is looking at?). Magnificent but haunted, challenging but wounded, Paula captures the sadness at the heart of Rochester. He, like Jane, longs to be loved but fears rejection. Both fear that they are ugly, both fear that they are unlovable. The power of the story is that we watch these two difficult, proud people fall in love in spite of their resistance.
In another extraordinary image, we see Jane alone against a violent red sunset. Her hands clutch between her legs through the thick folds of her skirt. She strains with longing towards an absent Rochester. In this and the curtain painting, Jane stands alone, physically powerful, potent, desirous. In other paintings, Paula has depicted Jane with others. Here she is always tiny (as Bronte describes her), like a child, scarcely grown into a woman, hiding behind furniture, her face buried in the pages of a book. This sense of Jane, one minute huge, strong, the next tiny, fragile, is exactly as Rochester sees her: "Never was anything at once so frail and so indomitable. A mere reed she feels in my hand. I could bend her with my fingers and thumb: what good would it do if I bent, if I uptore, if I crushed her? Consider that eye. Consider the resolute, wild free thing looking out of it, defying me. Whatever I do with its cage I cannot get at it. The savage beautiful creature." (I am struck now by how this last description might well apply to Paula herself.)
Finally, I must describe the picture of Bertha's monkey, the saddest of all the images. (I saw the original toy monkey in Paula's studio - an ancient, dog-eared, threadbare creature with button eyes and missing hands.) In the painting, the monkey has been dressed in a straitjacket and placed alone at the top of a ladder, like Bertha in her attic. The haunting sadness of this strange animal is hard to describe. The sense of Bertha's abandonment and alienation is realised in this curious toy. And that is Paula's great gift - to make visible the hidden - to allow us to see or sense what is hidden inside.
"Jane Eyre and Other Stories" is at Marlborough Fine Art, London W1 (020 7629 5161) until 22 November
Polly Teale's play Madame Bovary: breakfast with Emma is at the Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 until 22 November. For more information, visit www.sharedexperience.org.uk