Shared Experiences' After Mrs Rochester has docked in the West End after a regional tour. Written and directed by company artistic director Polly Teale, it relates the story of novelist Jean Rhys, famous for - amongst others - Wide Sargasso Sea about Mrs Rochester, the mad woman in the attic from Jane Eyre.
We are presented with three parts of Jean: Her older self (Diana Quick), locked in a room in Devon in a part-drunken, part-dillusional reverie of her life, the young Jean (Madeleine Potter) who relives her turbulent story and the third Jean, who is Mrs Rochester (Sarah Ball). Rhys was obsessed with Bronte's novel and we see a personification of Rhys' primitive and animal side prowling the stage, in the shape of the eponymous Mrs Rochester who gradually becomes more vocal as Rhys descends into the abyss.
Angela Davies' set is like a raft, carrying Rhys on her travels with a pile of suitcases and a wardrobe as cargo. The cyclorama is a canvas for spectacular cloudscapes from lighting designer Chris Davey which warns of the storms ahead.
At the age of 14 Rhys was told by a lascivious uncle that love is about 'violence and humiliation', as her life unfolds his prophecy is fulfilled again and again. Like Mrs Rochester Jean is the 'other' - in Dominica a poor white girl, in England a white woman who speaks like a 'nigger'. She goes on to become the 'other woman' as mistress to Ford Maddox Ford who nurtured her writing and self loathing. Rhys writes out of misery and the play asserts that she is a slave to many masters.
The company is an extremely strong unit with engaging performances all round. Teale's direction is an intricate dreamscape and the stories she weaves are engrossing, if a little brief at times.
The play ends with the older Jean writing while her daughter clears up around her, the rest of the actors have vacated the stage. It's a strange empty ending and we are left feeling stranded, isolated and alone, but that's probably better than being stuck with a howling Mrs Rochester for company as Rhys was.
- Hannah Kennedy
NOTE: The following review dates from March 2003 and an earlier tour stop for this production.
Have Shared Experience discovered the alchemists' secret? They fashion something precious out of every story they tell. If their last outing, A Passage to India, was the Koh-I-Noor diamond, After Mrs Rochester is a nest of Fabergé eggs.
In Polly Teale's intricately crafted play, the stories of Jean Rhys herself, her novel Wide Sargasso Sea (whose Creole heroine is Jane Eyre's 'madwoman', Mrs Rochester) and key moments of Bronte's nestle inside each other, making striking connections delicately and deliciously.
Diana Quick, as the eccentric older Rhys, lights the gloom of her locked room (paralleling Mrs Rochester's attic) with flashes of fire. She's in self-imposed isolation, literally and metaphorically locking out her daughter (Amy Marston, convincingly spiky in this and other roles).
But Jean is not alone. Characters from Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre vie for space in her mind and on stage with her own young self and other ghosts from her past. And so begins a gripping exploration of an extraordinary life, spanning Edwardian times and the 1970s - pointed by those scenes from the novels.
It was a life of contrasts and tensions: between the freedom and sunshine of her Caribbean childhood and the buttoned-up respectability required of an Englishwoman. Between the black majority and the white, ruling minority in the Caribbean. Between respectable wives and working women from chorus girls to writers (Jean was both!). Between wives and mistresses, mothers and daughters. And between the casual sexual freedom men enjoy and the price women pay for seeking the same.
Teale's direction is as assured as her writing. She creates vivid stage pictures on Angela Davies' arresting set, effortlessly making a wardrobe into an exotic shoreline. Her cast is a seamless ensemble, with Madeleine Potter outstanding as the young Jean, an enchanting wild child, forced to mature into a damaged woman.
Quick, Potter as well as Sarah Ball (terrifying and touching as their fictional alter ego of the title) all play aspects of Rhys. The other players prove extraordinarily versatile, deftly sketching in a range of characters. Hattie Ladbury corners the market in wives and mothers, chilling as Rhys' repressed mamma. Syan Blake is an exhilarating free spirit as Rhys' wild childhood mate Tite, equally feisty later as her mentor in the chorus. David Annen and Simon Thorp play bounders and heroes with equal conviction.
As a spellbinding storyteller herself, Rhys would have revelled in this stunning retelling of her story.
- Judi Herman (reviewed at the Royal Theatre, Northampton)