Jean Rhys (1890 – 1979) was a troubled, Caribbean-born chorus girl turned writer who strongly identified with a fictional counterpart – Mr. Rochester’s mad first wife in Charlotte Brontë‘s classic 1847 novel Jane Eyre. In 1966, after decades of silence, Jean Rhys produced her masterpiece, a Jane Eyre prequel titled Wide Sargasso Sea told from the perspective of Rochester’s unhappy West Indian bride. British playwright Polly Teale’s labyrinthine drama interweaves the demons haunting Jean with her fictional obsession to explore their toll on the writer’s stormy life. Alumnae Theatre Company is very proud to present the Canadian premiere of After Mrs. Rochester.
Polly Teale, the co-Artistic Director of Shared Experience Theatre in Oxford, England read Jean Rhys’ novel Wide Sargasso Sea while researching for a stage adaptation of Jane Eyre (which premiered in 1997). The more she read of Rhys’ other novels, the more she was “struck by the parallels between her own story and that of Mr. Rochester’s mad wife – the woman who would become the heroine of Jean’s late masterpiece Wide Sargasso Sea …Jean felt a desire to rewrite Mrs. Rochester’s story, to tell it from the beginning. To tell it from the inside.”
Laura Roald, who directed Closer for Alumnae Theatre in 2008, looks at the play After Mrs. Rochester as the story of Jean Rhys “ripping the novel Wide Sargasso Sea from her very skin”. Roald notes that “working with an all-female cast allows the production to explore the hauntings from a personal perspective – Jean Rhys wrote with a deeply personal voice, and each emotional echo is an aspect of her own experiences. Cross-gendering the roles allow us to maintain that voice while still examining the raw pain of her life journey.”
The set design, conceived by the director, suggests outlines of mountains and doors, pulling together the disparate worlds of the lush landscape of Dominica and the stuffy cloister of Jean’s little writing room. A single space transforms to dozens of locations, and still remains a closed attic room. Paul Hardy‘s lighting incorporates the rich and sensual as well as the humid and shadowy. Megan Benjafield‘s atmospheric soundscape weaves throughout the fluid time shifts.
Alumnae Theatre Company’s production of After Mrs. Rochester features Susan Q Wilson as JeanRhys, Jessica Rose as Ella (her younger self), with Kanika Ambrose, Julie Burris, Laura Jabalee, Tabitha Keast, Tina McCulloch and Laine Newman as various characters (real and fictional) who haunted Jean’s life and memories – including Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester, and Bertha Rochester.