Tuesday, 13 August 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: The Yellow Wallpaper - Footlights Theatre, Salford

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, has been subjected to numerous adaptations since its publication in 1892 but the version presented by Dram Viver (ahead of a run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival) may possibly be the first to apply elements of classical Greek tragedy into its production. This version transposes the action from late nineteenth century America to England in 1956 (a year of theatrical revolution in England and a period on the cusp of the emergence of second wave feminism in the 1960s) but retains faithful to the core action of the original story.

The set was minimalist, with three flats painted in the swirling, bizarre patterns of the titular yellow wallpaper in front of which was a bed, centre stage, and centre stage left, was a stool and small desk with a vase with some flowers in. The play began with the unnamed Protagonist (Madeleine Healey) writing in her diary of her illness following the birth of her baby son (what we now know as post-natal depression) and that her husband, John, who is also a doctor, has prescribed complete rest for her – she is to resist any attempt and exciting herself or her imagination. John’s sister, Mary (originally Jennie in the original story) acts as housekeeper and nursemaid to the baby boy, and John has rented a home for the summer to assist with his wife’s cure. The house – and more specifically the room the Protagonist is confined to – unnerves our unnamed lead and she is especially disturbed by the bizarre yellow wallpaper in the room. As the ‘rest cure’ stifles her, the Protagonist begins to deteriorate, until she begins to see a figure behind the wallpaper, and eventually suffers a complete breakdown.

What truly lifts this production is the way it has incorporated a Greek Chorus into the action. The chorus narrate and sing throughout the play, interacting with the Protagonist and becoming the figures behind the wallpaper. This effect is heightened by having the chorus dressed in clothes with the same design as the wallpaper and wearing gauze masks over their faces so only their eyes can be seen. It is truly a bizarre sight – but in a positive way; eerie, unsettling, and perfectly reflecting the disintegrating mood of the central character.

As the play’s protagonist, Healey is absolutely amazing – her early frustration at being kept locked in her room is nicely balanced by her character’s desire to try and be a good wife to John but she really takes things to the next level as her character becomes more unhinged, a shift which is signified by her entering the stage during the second half of the play with the red lipstick and rouged cheeks wiped off and her eyes barely blinking – she really did look unwell (and that is a testament to both Healey’s performance and a superb make-up job). Her performance in the incredibly intense final scene, where the chorus surround her and they all sing and shout their lines, as madness fully descends is truly something to behold.

Given that the show is going to the Edinburgh Fringe, one assumes that its under an hour run-time has been placed upon it for production reasons. The run-time is this production’s main weakness as John and Mary appear on-stage, but their appearances are somewhat limited, and it feels like the current version of the show would be much stronger with just the Protagonist relating her diary entries to the audience and acting out John and Mary’s parts herself alongside the Chorus. A more extended version, however, would enable the show to further explore the characters of John and Mary. While there are hints in the show that John can be controlling, it feels like this could be explored more with an extended run-time. Likewise, with Mary, there is a startling scene where she interacts with the Chorus and there is a discourse on feminism and women’s equal role to men (which runs counter to her view) and this fascinating metatextual unravelling of the feminist issues within the original story would again be something which would benefit from an a longer show. It would also give both actors more to get their teeth into.

When all is said and done, however, this version of The Yellow Wallpaper is startling and at times disturbing and is well-worth going to see for anyone visiting the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year. A highly enjoyable and unusual spin on a classic of Gothic literature, and one which should have no trouble standing out from the vast number of other productions taking place at the festival.

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 12/8/19

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