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A CurtainUp London Review
After Mrs Rochester
by Lizzie Loveridge
The Original Review
In a very remarkable life, Jean was rediscovered as a novelist with the publication in 1966 of Wide Sargasso Sea which details the life of Bertha Mason in the West Indies before she married Mr Rochester and became the woman in the attic in the bookJane Eyre. There are some similarities between Ella and the fictional first Mrs Rochester. Both came from the West Indies, both died in the English countryside and both had elements of insanity.
With information from Jean's books and from her biography by Carole Angier, Polly Teale has constructed this fascinating drama of her life. True to Shared Experience tradition, as we see Jean Rhys (Diana Quick) as Jean, an elderly woman sitting onstage telling her story, her younger self, Ella, is played by Madeleine Potter. Ever present is the unbridled figure of Mrs Rochester (Sarah Ball) showing the primitive and passionate side of Ella's nature.
Ella was sent from Dominica to England to school and later to train for the stage at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Leaving early, she took a job as a showgirl and was befriended by a man, who made her his mistress and supported her financially. After he ended that relationship, she spiralled downwards into a rather sleazy existence making the connection between her young beauty and her economic worth as a near prostitute. She works as an artist's model, a tour guide, a mannequin, a receptionist in a shop. A marriage went wrong when her Dutch husband was discovered to be a fraudster and she ended up in Paris, moving in with Ford Madox Ford and his wife Stella. Ford encouraged her writing and she was published in the Transatlantic Review. Ella and Ford had an affair. He changed her name to Jean Rhys. Ella's own daughter was brought up in a convent and never lived with her mother. Later Ella had a tempestuous relationship with her literary agent and in 1934 her first novel is published. She disappears in the 1950s but later in that decade, Francis Wyndham of André Deutsch the publishers, encourages her towards the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea which wins awards in 1966. Jean Rhys died in 1979. She left a partially finished autobiography.
Shared Experience's interpretation of Jean's life is riveting. From the early days in the West Indies, playing with her friend from an emancipated slave family, Tite (Syan Blake) and bullied by her poverty-struck, "keeping up appearances" mother (Hattie Ladbury), Ella (Madeleine Potter) reads the story of Jane Eyre's romance with Mr Rochester. Onstage we see the little, plain Jane Eyre (Amy Marston) and the handsome, wordly-wise Rochester (Simon Thorp). Her mother bans mangoes from the house after Ella is seen trying to peel them with her teeth like Tite has taught her. We have a wonderful picture of life in the heat and humidity of the Dominica where "fabric rots, furniture falls apart. Nothing here lasts.".
Teale's contribution is for each aspect of her narrative to be expressively shown onstage. At one point Ella asks her daughter questions. The daughter doesn't reply but Jean says what Ella is thinking. This treatment of the story telling enlivens it and makes it easier to reflect on.
With Leah Hausman in charge of movement, the interpretation swells with physicality. This is Shared Experience's own hallmark. The cast is only eight but without realising the overlap, you will remember many more characters. The set is an old wardrobe. Small piles of suitcases, hat boxes, leather trunks, heaps of books giving the impression of always being on the move, the impermanence of Jean's existence. Costumes too are in period--wonderful showgirl outfitss, orange checked layered cotton dresses worn for the West Indian women, the dressy elegance of the 1920s in the person of Stella Madox Ford.
Diana Quick is splendid as Jean the author, she sits sometimes quietly getting sozzled with the ever present bottle of Armagnac, her knees apart and pencils in her hair ready to be absorbed in her writing. Madeleine Potter as young Ella is buffeted as she tries to overcome the insecurity, the desperate need for a husband that her mother instilled in her. She is so often the victim of predatory men and easily hurt. She keeps her Creole accent throughout. Hattie Ladbury doubles as the tight lipped, controlling mother and successful elegant, Stella, Mrs Madox Ford, who consoles herself in saying of Jean, "She's hardly wife material". Sarah Ball writhes and squirms, often on all fours, her hair wildly dread-locked as the deranged Mrs Rochester. This character is used as Jean felt the need to conceal some aspects of her life, those things she felt ashamed of. The men too are extremely versatile. David Annen as father, first lover, first husband, literary agent and second husband, Simon Thorp as lecherous uncle, Mr Rochester, Ford Madox Ford. I liked Amy Marston's poker straight Jane Eyre and as Ella's abandoned daughter.
After Mrs Rochester has Shared Experience at the top of their game. It continues to tour after London to Cambridge and Guildford until the end of May. Jean Rhys' life spans from the Victorian era to late in the twentieth century. She had a remarkable life and this exuberant dramatisation does her justice.
LINKS to Curtain Up reviews of plays from Shared Experience
A Doll's House
The Mill on the Floss
A Passage to India
Mendes at the Donmar
Peter Ackroyd's History of London: The Biography
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
At This Theater
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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