Theatre People review: “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Sept 2011

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This is a review I wrote for Theatre People of a theatrical adaptation of the famous short story, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.

The Yellow Wallpaper is a new Perth production based on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s gothic short story of the same name, adapted for stage by Silvia Lehmann and Teresa Izzard. This beautiful play gives a twisted physicality to the tale of a woman, Charlotte, who is struggling to cope after the birth of her first child. Her husband, a doctor, prescribes a ‘rest cure’ – a popular remedy for ‘hysterical tendencies’ in 1892. Stuck in the upstairs nursery with nothing but her imagination and the wallpaper, the woman desperately searches for an escape.

The role of Charlotte is shared between two actors – Jo Morris and Sarah Nelson. Morris is captivating as the ‘real’ Charlotte, the one still anchored in reality, while Nelson represents the part of Charlotte’s mind that she keeps hidden. From the very beginning of action, the two women are in perfect sync; they mirror each other’s movements around the stage in a way that is both fascinating and slightly unsettling. As Charlotte’s mental state deteriorates, the line separating the two women blurs, culminating in a breathtakingly disturbing choreography at the end.

Charlotte’s husband (Sean Walsh) orbits around the edge of the set. He sits to one side of the stage throughout the play, reading medical books in his winged armchair, an immediate symbol of nineteenth-century masculine authority. Walsh is perfect as the logic-minded doctor who treats his wife with fatherly condescension. The doctor ignores his wife’s pleas for help, insisting that she would get better if she would only practise some self-will. As infuriating as his character is, Walsh doesn’t let him descend into a monstrous figure; he makes him human, a man who is well-meaning but getting it completely wrong.

Though there are only three principals in The Yellow Wallpaper, I feel I should name a fourth: the wallpaper itself. Laura Heffernan’s brilliantly crafted set, complemented by clever lighting design from Karen Cook, gives the peeling yellow wallpaper a life of its own. The actors interact with the paper until it has a towering presence in The Blue Room’s small theatre; they stare into it, tear strips off it, and rub its dust onto their clothes. Silhouettes dance behind it and disembodied eyes blink through secret holes. It is delightfully creepy.

Perkins Gilman’s original story was composed of a first-person narrator’s journal entries, and I was curious to see how Lehmann and Izzard would flesh out the parts of the story that were left unwritten. For instance, the woman is never named in the original text, but in the play her name becomes Charlotte, an evident nod to the author. Except for a couple of changes, the play keeps true to the brooding drama and moments of black humour that made The Yellow Wallpaper such an arresting tale. However, I thought one of the company’s interpretations of the story was a bit odd: as Charlotte deteriorates, so does her husband. Charlotte’s decline into madness would have had more impact if it had been contrasted by the husband’s stoic belief in reason. Instead he was reduced to a crawling, collapsing wreck, which seemed uncharacteristic. This, perhaps, was why the play did not reach a stronger climax at the end; I think the audience was waiting for a more violent conclusion to Charlotte’s condition.

Despite an uncertain finale, The Yellow Wallpaper is a truly stunning production by Perth physical theatre company Movementworks. And, with a relatively short running time and no intermission, it holds the audience’s tense attention from start to finish.

The Yellow Wallpaper is showing at The Blue Room until Saturday, 3rd September 2011.

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