Polly Teale’s “After Mrs.
Rochester” is a theatrical tour de force based on the troubled
life of novelist Jean Rhys, a white Creole who identified with
the West Indian madwoman
in the attic in Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.” Onstage
all at the same time, impressively acted, are the disheveled older
Jean, drinking in her cottage in Devon, her remembered beautiful
younger self, and mad Bertha Mason, her alter ego. For Shared
Experience, Ms. Teale has done a brilliant job of weaving into
a theatrical whole the life of Rhys from her autobiographical
novels and incidents from “Jane Eyre. Alienation, isolation, and
incarceration become themes of the play as under Ms. Teale’s expert
direction, Rhys’s life unfolds, interspersed with scenes from
Bronte’s novel. Economically depicted, the action takes
place before a cyclorama that changes from Caribbean pinks and
oranges to British grey, in Angela Davies’ imaginative set, with
the chairs, wardrobe, trunks, and piles of manuscripts serving
for the many locales.
Diana Quick is brilliant as Jean, grey-haired
and disheveled, drinking in her paper-strewn room, refusing to admit
her daughter, who knocks at the locked door. When not center
stage, Ms. Quick never stops acting and reacting, watching the progress
of young Jean (Madeleine Potter) from frisky girlhood
in Dominica in the Caribbean to sexually awakened teen-ager, to
a beautiful but promiscuous woman deserted by a series of men.
On the floor a ragged heap comes to life, groaning, dancing, or
laughing hysterically. This is Bertha (Sarah Ball), Bronte’s madwoman
whom Jean sees as her savage side, locked away but at times bursting
forth. Like Bertha, Jean bit a man (when his loud music interfered
with her writing) and went to jail. In the play, Jean struggles
to break away from Bertha so that she can be a “normal” mother to
Ms. Potter is impressive as young, carefree Jean,
beaten for her antics by her mother, who is struggling to maintain
dignity in the colonial outpost where their near-poverty is scorned
by the better-off black majority. When sent to school in England,
Jean is again an outcast, her Creole accent derided and leading
to her discharge from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where
she hoped to train as an actress. She winds up in the chorus
line of a seedy Edwardian touring company, as an artist’s model,
as a “kept woman.” Reminiscent of Blanche in “A Streetcar
Named Desire,” she worries about her looks, and seeks solace in
drink and safety in relations with men. Ms. Teale notes that
Rhys’s novels capture “the deep insecurity and anxiety that comes
from never somehow feeling solid,” a feeling that is “particularly
When Jean’s first lover ends their affair,
she spends four days writing him a long letter; “once it’s written
down, it doesn’t hurt so much,” she finds. Among her subsequent
marriages and affairs is a marriage to a journalist who is jailed
for fraud, while she, poverty-stricken and pregnant; must leave
the baby in a clinic. Simon Thorp creates two dominant males, dictatorial
Ford Madox Ford, Jean’s mentor who changes her name from Ella
Rees Williams to Jean Rhys (“more modern”) encourages her writing,
loves her, and then deserts her. Mr. Thorp also is impressive
as Mr. Rochester in the scenes with Amy Marston, who finds the perfect
quiet strength for Jane Eyre.
Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)
is the best-known of Jean Rhys’s novels, described as a “prequel”
to Jane Eyre in telling of the earlier life of the first
Mrs. Rochester, unknown to Rochester when he marries her in the
West Indies as an impoverished young man, encouraged by both families
and tempted by her large dowry. In the novel, Jean identifies
with Bertha, like herself an exile from the warmth of the Caribbean
and the “wide Sargasso sea” to the cold of England, and like her,
subject to fits and violence. Her other novels, about alienated
women living on the edge of society, include After Leaving
Mr. Mackenzie and Good Morning, Midnight. (Duke
of York’s Theatre, St. Martin’s Lane, WC2N 4BG, phone 0870 060
Bronte, arriving at the Lyric
Hammersmith, is Polly Teale’s third work in a trilogy dealing
with Jane Eyre and Charlotte Bronte.
The first, written a decade ago, was a stage adaptation
of the novel and suggested that the madwoman in the attic represented
a hidden aspect of Jane herself, and of Charlotte.
Notes Ms. Teale of the madwoman, “She is both dangerous and exciting.
She is passionate and sexual, angry and violent.
She is the embodiment of everything that Charlotte
feared in herself and longed to express, of everything Charlotte’s
life could never be.”
The second play in the trilogy, After Mrs.
Rochester, looks back to the childhood of Bertha, the madwoman,
growing up in Dominica
in the Caribbean as did English writer
Jean Rhys, whose novel Wild Sargasso Sea is a prequel to
Jane Eyre. Ms. Teale’s drama had a successful run in
End with Diana Quick starring as Jean, whose story
is told along with that of Antoinette, who is renamed Bertha by
Mr. Rochester after he arrives to marry her for her dowry and
to take her to England.
In the latest play, “Bronte,” Ms. Teale depicts
the restricted life of the Bronte sisters,
Charlotte, Anne and Emily (author of Wuthering Heights),
their preacher father, and their brother Branwell, in the
parsonage at Howorth in Yorkshire in the
mid-nineteenth century. Everyday
chores occupy their external activities as “one day resembles
another and all have lifeless physiognomies,” Charlotte
writes to her sister; yet her internal life, like that of Emily,
was very different. For the sisters are writing their two masterpieces,
and as they mouth the lines of their
books, imagination is embodied by a dancer erotically personifying
the madwoman in Jane Eyre and the wild, dying Cathy vowing
eternal love for Heathcliffe in Wuthering
Heights. Ms. Teale explains that to tell the sisters’
story “we need to dramatize the collision between drab domesticity
and unfettered, soaring imagination, to see both the real and
internal world at once, to make visible what is hidden inside.”
And so she brings into the play these two characters from
the novels, “living in the house, haunting their creators. While
the sisters cook and clean and sew there exists another world
full of passion and fury.”
The play first depicts the siblings as children,
relieving their isolated lives by writing (on tiny pages) and
acting out adventure stories for Branwell’s toy soldiers.
Their father’s library of famous writers like Shakespeare,
Milton, and Byron also fired their imaginations, though women
in the 1850s were not allowed to borrow library books, a privilege
extended only to brother Branwell.
But when the sisters discard their pinafores, indicating
their growth into women poor and plain, facing a reality where
prospects are severely limited. For educated women, the job of governess was
their only hope, and at that occupation (unlike Jane Eyre) they
achieved small success. Branwell,
less restricted than his sisters, indulged in gambling, lost a
tutoring job because of an affair with the mother of his charge,
took to drink and drugs, and descended into paranoia.
Fenella Woolgar expertly brings out both Charlotte’s
repression and her desire “to travel, to work, to live a life
of action,” as she writes her sister.
When Jane Eyre is a tremendous success and her identity
(concealed by a pseudonym) revealed, she travels to London to
be celebrated by the literary lights of the day; but when Charlotte
also discloses Emily’s name, she is furious, for she craved anonymity.
Another cause of tension in the household is Branwell’s
increasingly outrageous behavior, some of it brought about by
his inability to live up to the expectations of his father and
sisters. Diane Beck and
Catherine Cusack are impressive as Emily and Anne, as Emily withdraws
from the world, wandering the moors like her heroine, and Anne
becomes concerned with social injustice. Matthew Thomas as Branwell and Heathcliffe
and David Fielder as the father are both outstanding as they enact
family as well as fictional characters. Mr. Fielder is Rochester
in the excerpt from Jane Eyre when he reveals to Jane (Ms.
Woolgar) the identity of the madwoman, attempting to restrain
the “figure…like some strange wild animal” that bites him.
Dancer Natalia Tena is effective as both Bertha, in red,
and Cathy, in flowing white nightclothes.
Evocative images by artist Paula Rego from her
series on Jane Eyre are projected on the backdrop, contributing
to the effect of reality–fantasy by providing a contrast with
the kitchen setting by Angela Davies.
Bronte is a theater experience not to be missed,
especially when we consider that Jane Eyre is believed
to be the second-most read book in English, the first being the
Bible. Performance schedule on tour and in London:
www.sharedexperience.org.uk (Lyric Hammersmith, Lyric
Street, London W6
0QL; phone: 08700 500 511. Tickets: