The Theatreguide.London Review
Duke of York's Theatre Summer 2003
Polly Teale's new play about novelist Jean Rhys is the sort of thing a very talented postgraduate student in English literature might write. But it remains an intellectual construct throughout, and a stage full of fine actors cannot make it come alive as theatre.
A reminder of two bits of background: First, in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, the heroine's love interest turns out to have a first wife, who he married in the West Indies and who is now a madwoman locked in the attic.
Second, twentieth-century novelist Jean Rhys, herself born in the West Indies, fought mental and emotional demons of her own all her life. Her award-winning novel Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel to Jane Eyre, told from the first wife's point of view.
Teale's play finds Jean locked in her own attic trying to write the novel, and haunted by the spirit of Mrs. Rochester.
As Jean remembers her own life and it is acted out before us, biography, Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre run parallel, clash into each other and even blend together in various ways, in the hopes of explaining why the fiction meant so much to Jean and to use Jean's life to reinterpret the fiction.
Now that is very, very, very clever. But the problem is that that's all it is - a clever literary conceit. We don't really learn anything new about either Rhys or Bronte, and none of the characters, real or fictional, ever come alive.
They are quotations cited to support a thesis, and we are always aware that we are watching an illustrated Ph.D. dissertation, not a play.
Acting as her own director, Teale moves her cast around fluidly and guides several of them through doubled and tripled roles, but not a single one of them is ever a real human being.
As the mature Jean, Diana Quick has little to do except look haggard and narrate her life story. Much of the acting burden is on the shoulders of Madeleine Potter as the younger Jean.
But the biography, however accurate, comes across as such a string of costume-drama cliches - unhappy childhood, unhappy schooldays, unhappy love affairs, unhappy marriages, unhappy writing - that Potter's accomplishment lies in keeping us from laughing rather than in creating any reality or empathy.
Fans of either Bronte or Rhys will enjoy the play as they would enjoy an interesting lecture, because they come to it already interested in the subject matter.
Others may wonder why they are there and why they are being told these things about a woman that the play does not succeed in making interesting.
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