After Mrs Rochester
CHRISTOPHER SMITH Sewell Barn, Norwich
Sewell Barn, Norwich
Yes, that's the first Mrs Rochester, the hair-raising fire raiser, the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre. But Polly Teale is not concerned to make a drama out of the mysteries that Charlotte Bronte left in her famous novel. Instead, she does something more exciting. She traced patterns of appalling obsessions in the life of a writer that can only be resolved by projecting them into the fictional character.
Teale puts that writer on stage in two forms, as the older woman looking back and as a younger woman growing up from a West Indian childhood to chaotic middle age in Europe. This sets up an intriguing, if sometimes puzzling double perspective. There's a danger of fragmentation as the action rushed backwards and forwards in time, offering glimpses of life rather than developed scenes. Director Clare Howard's success is to make the narrative frame persuasive while also creating a sequence of compelling episodes. None is more striking than the few seconds devoted to an impression of a steam ship about to sail, with just a few details of bustle working on our imaginations.
A permanent set surrounded by foliage and the whirr of insects off stage suggests that there is a jungle out there, whether it's as real or just metaphorical. Mental stresses are embodied in the figure of the wretched, insane Mrs Rochester always present, never integrated until the end.
A strong cast, mainly female, works together in this play of ideas. Vivienne Hillier has strength as Jean Rhys, and Nika Obydzinski is her troubled younger self, and Tawa Kesington has vivacity and verve. Ruth Howitt is the very picture of mental imbalance, while Amy Michaels takes three crisply differentiated character roles.