Shared Experience is always a company to watch. Rightly praised for their dynamic, innovative brand of physical theatre that seeks to explore the psychological realms of drama, their subjects are often classic texts that they reinterpret to thrilling effect. On this occasion it's the life of a specific author that comes under the spotlight.
Jean Rhys wrote the acclaimed Wide Sargasso Sea in the 1960's, a book chronicling the story of 'the madwoman in the attic' Bertha Mason, a sort of prequel to Charlotte Bronte's immortal Jane Eyre. Rhys' own life was restless and colourful: a white Creole born Ella Rees Williams in the West Indies in 1890, her early life was dominated by her mother's strict notions of Western superiority which contrasted dramatically with the freedom enjoyed by the native islanders. Sent to school in London in her teens she soon discovered the power of her own beauty but such narcissism came at a heavy price for she seems never to have been able to dispel the deep insecurity that was a legacy of her unhappy childhood. In the midst of a peripatetic existence, writing was both necessary and therapeutic for, as Rhys herself realised, 'When you've written it down it doesn't hurt anymore,' though this relief seems to have often been temporary.
In the hands of Shared Experience and under the excellent direction of Polly Teale, Rhys' difficult, remarkable life gains a new coherence. Set during the composition of Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys- brilliantly portrayed by Diana Quick- is musing on her life as her daughter arrives to find the house locked- a metaphor for the essential loneliness of Rhys' life. Although 3 times married she claimed to have felt happiest on her own, exorcising childhood demons proving difficult.
Angela Davies' cluttered, cramped set vividly conveys the claustrophobia of such a life and in Quick and Madeleine Potter (young Jean) we have two superb, sensitive performances that capture every nuance of the woman. Completing the triangle is Sarah Ball whose ubiquitous Mrs Rochester represents the volatile side of Rhys' nature. All the cast are very good and though towards the end one feels a slight element of repetition in the way the duality of Rhys' nature is portrayed, it's a wonderfully rich production, persuasive and powerful in every respect.
BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "triumph of Teale’s play..." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "This is a revelation, a rare feat of theatrical imagining...A knock-out
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