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March 22, 2004 | by  | in Theatre | [ssba]

After Mrs Rochester

I don’t have the figures available, but I’d be willing to gamble that Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is one of the most-read books in the English language. Even for those who haven’t read it, the novel’s story is well known – sweet but clever Jane, charming but mysterious Mr Rochester and the mad wife he keeps locked up on the third floor of his English country estate. Over the years, the shadowy character of Mrs Rochester has generated literary interest of her own, particularly from feminist authors. One of the most famous spin-offs is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, published in 1966. After Mrs Rochester is the story of that author.

Behind the locked door of her bedroom, a middle-aged Jean (Diana Quick) tries to make sense of her life. She essentially narrates her story to her younger self (Emily Bruni), who acts out Jean’s history according to her own instruction. The parallels with Jane Eyre come early and often; growing up in an English family in the West Indies, Jean loves the book as a young girl and feels a particular affinity with Mrs Rochester, herself a native of the West Indies. Later, like Mrs Rochester, Jean is sent against her will to England where she will spend the rest of her life in search of an elusive happiness. Jean (both young and old) is also joined on stage at all times by her own “mad” alter-ego (Sarah Ball).

After Mrs Rochester is an absorbing, dream-like piece. Aside from the three incarnations of Jean, the cast boasts five other actors, each playing a variety of characters. These characters move languidly in and out of the play, using a fairly scant set to its full advantage. The premise is ripe for confusion, but the action is in fact remarkably clear. Polly Teale must be congratulated for her direction here, but the cast are also superb, melding seamlessly from one character to another sometimes in a matter of minutes. The only slightly confusing element of the play is Jean’s own madwoman, whose presence is unclear at the play’s open and then a little superfluous throughout most of the first half. It seems that more could have been made of this intriguing idea.

Jean Rhys’s story is not a happy one. Although the play ends on a tentatively positive note, suggesting that Jean could perhaps find the unconditional love that she has always wanted, Teale pulled no punches when dramatizing the tragedy of the author’s life. After Mrs Rochester, however, is not a depressing play. The play has moments of sharp humour, mostly emanating from the sardonic Jean. “Her dress is beautifully cut,” the older Jean muses about the wife of a man who will become her young self’s lover, “her hair is immaculately styled. She is definitely of the species of wife.”

In the end, Jean’s escape from her life comes through writing. “What should I do?”, young Jean asks older Jean upon realising the parallels between Mrs Rochester’s story and her own. “Write it,” comes the reply, “her story, your story. Because you were there”.

After Mrs Rochester is a compelling, multi-layered play that demands much of its audience but offers much in return. Fast-paced and exhilarating, the expertise of its cast and polished nature of its staging and effects do justice to an original and exciting script. Highly recommended.

Written and directed by Polly Teale
Opera House until March 22


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