Jean Rhys is known for her literary masterpiece “Wide Sargasso Sea”. Like her anti-heroine Mrs Rochester, Rhys too was rather wild and unpredictable. After a two-year sentence for assaulting her neighbour – of which she served one year –, Rhys disappeared for seven years, seven years that have never been accounted for! When she re-emerged in 1957 she was discovered working on her classic “Wide Sargasso Sea”.
“After Mrs Rochester”, written and directed by Polly Teale, is a biography of Jean Rhys’ difficult life. She was born and raised in the West Indies, on the Isle of Dominica, as Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams. She had a troubled relationship with her mother who beat Ella on a regular bases. Ella found the conventional mannerisms of colonial life too constraining, and would rather play with the natives then learn how to be a lady.
As a child she began her life-long obsession with Charlotte Bronte’s novel ‘Jane Eyre’. Here in the midst of this quintessential English novel was the wild West Indian woman, Mrs Rochester, whom the young Jean was immediately able to identify with. Polly Teale sees this obsession with the character of Mrs Rochester as pivotal to her biographical play.
Jean Rhys is portrayed as trapped between the prudishness instilled in her from her childhood and her inability to conform. She was always the outsider - her white skin prevented her from being fully accepted by the native children of the island, whilst her Creole accent meant she was never fully accepted into middle class English society.
Just as the character of Mrs Rochester was concealed in the attic, so Jean would try, and usually fail, to hide the more capricious side to her personality. We learn of her inability to form relationships with people, how she perceived herself to be unlovable and of her obsessive need to write to find inner peace with her own psyche.
The play begins with an elderly Rhys locked away in her attic room drinking Gin and trying to write. On the floor lies her alter ego, the wild and dishevelled Mrs Rochester whilst Rhys’ daughter knocks on the door demanding to be allowed entrance. Into this attic room enters the young Jean and her friend Maudie, her mother and father, and a host of other people whom Jean Rhys forms relationships with, but of whom she says, “People have always been shadows to me. I have never known other people.”
The play is clumsy and at times too crowded with the allegories that the playwright sees between Mrs Rochester and Jean Rhys. Suddenly, in this midst of conversations between Jean Rhys and her younger self, Jane Eyre walks on stage to question Mr Rochester about the woman hidden in his attic. Whilst the symbolism may be valid its execution looks more like a literary exercise by the playwright then a meaningful illustration.
The acting throughout the play is excellent. Diana Quick giving a remarkable performance as the drunken unkempt Jean Rhys and Madeleine Potter as the younger defiant Jean. Potter moves with ease from childhood defiance, to maidenhood enchantress and wild passionate fury. Both these women are a delight to watch. Sarah Ball has a more difficult character as Mrs Rochester, the third woman in this schizophrenic interpretation of Jean Rhys life. She lies on the floor throughout the play groaning and muttering obscenities, I could not help but hope that someone would soon but this pitiful creature out of her misery.
Jean Rhys life may have been haunted by demons, which she was able to exorcise by writing, but she said of her work, “When you’ve written it, it doesn’t hurt anymore. But you’re finished. A part of you is gone.” That remark flows with pathos yearning, an existential angst that Rhys was able to express in her novels at startling depth. Sadly, this troubled play struggles to express the same agitation and its merit diminishes in it’s unfolding.
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This review dates from the run of this production at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre
10 May 03
Madeline Potter's stellar performance alone is reason enough to see this extraordinary play. Although the publicity implies Diana Quick is the star, playing the writer Jean Rhys as an alcoholic middle-aged woman revisiting her life, it's Potter's tour-de-force transformation from a fresh, charming 13-year-old young Jean into a raddled adult Jean that fills the play with life. When she first came onstage, I thought Potter must have a daughter I didn't know about. But no: this is an exceptionally accomplished actress in a role worthy of her talents.
Any production by Shared Experience is, in my opinion, not to be missed, as this company revels in pulling out all the stops available in the theatrical form. This is theatre at its best, where space and time, sets and lighting, voice and movement are fully utilized as ingredients to create a larger-than-life world bursting with vitality. We see young Jean (Potter) and old Jean (Quick) repeating or echoing each other's movements in ways that illuminate their shared character, including twice -- memorably -- as mirror images. The piled-up books in Quick's study become stepping-stones for Potter to cross a brook, where she dives to the bottom with her Dominican best friend. An armoire opens to become the backstage dressing room for a group of chorus girls. Through Jean Rhys's memories (or are they hallucinations?) we watch a brilliant, tortured writer grope for an understanding of herself by identifying with the crazy wife (also, in her mind, a Dominican) whom Mr. Rochester kept locked in the attic in Jane Eyre. The spectre of Mrs. Rochester is always present for Rhys as for Jane Eyre, a sort of human sword of Damocles, here depicted by an actress who lurks perpetually onstage, though she never steps into the spotlight. Aside from Mrs. Rochester and the two Jeans (Quick and Potter), the other four cast members play a whole spectrum of characters from Rhys's life. The play is framed by one of them: Rhys's estranged adult daughter, pounding on her door, urgently summoned by the semi-delirious mother who now refuses to let her in.
I recommend this play wholeheartedly to anyone with a serious interest in theatre, as well as to anyone curious about the writer Jean Rhys.
What other critics had to say.....
IAN JOHNS for the TIMES says, "an absorbing piece of storytelling and a poignant, poetic pleasure." RACHEL HALLIBURTON for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Bold and expressionistic exploration...a tale of sound and fury." MADDY COSTA for THE GUARDIAN says, " Rhys's life is fascinating, but the trouble with Teale's presentation of it is that the style takes over." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "marvellously imaginative and empathetic play."