Review: The Yellow Wallpaper

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The second of HBT’s New Work pieces is Eliza Jones’ adaptation of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, a proto-feminist Victorian short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In her Director’s Note, Jones states that what appealed to her about Perkins Gilman’s work was its ‘timelessness’: ‘it feels shockingly modern.’ Jones is absolutely right: with its themes of female oppression and ‘mansplaining’, the story strikes a chord with a twenty-first century audience, a fact which is helped by the production using modern dress.

The programme advertises the fact that the show includes physical theatre. This is true, but the physical theatre routines are fairly limited and could be more innovative and dynamic. In one section of the play, a character speaks of circles depicted on the titular wallpaper; some of the ensemble move their backs to represent these shapes, but only subtly: the physical element could be much bolder and more slick.

There are, however, some delightful and inventive moments of staging for which Writer-Director Eliza Jones must be praised. It is a clever move to have the eponymous yellow wallpaper not as a real prop but instead as an imaginary piece of scenery placed where the audience are; this means that the actors are always clearly visible to us as they watch and discuss it. Having the Woman constantly break the fourth wall pulls the audience into her story, rendering the show more gripping, and means that we, unlike her Doctor or husband, are on her side and can truly understand her predicament.

The section where the cast create, from yellow bedding, a den in which the Woman can tell stories evokes a sense of childhood nostalgia in the audience and neatly underscores the fact that while she is enclosed in this room (which used to be a nursery) the Woman is reduced to an infantile state. The best scene is the one in which the main lights go down and shadow puppetry is used: the ensemble tell the story of a marriage in which the wife keeps house while the husband works, the couple love their baby and they all live ‘happily ever after.’ We see this wife as a shadow, embracing her rounded stomach then contentedly rocking her baby. This scene of a ‘perfect’ marriage forms an effective contrast with the main narrative in which the Woman is imprisoned by the men in her life, tormented, and separated from her baby. Technical Director Meerav Shah and Light Operator Katrina Merrick’s work on this scene is laudable.

Performances are largely strong. Betsy Bell, playing the Woman, is earnest and expressive from the  opening: her eyes shine and her face lights up as she tells the story of women who, threatened by weapon-bearing men who strove to overtake their island, asked the sea to swallow them and their land whole so it would never belong to anyone else. Bell creates a multifaceted character who fluctuates between being downcast (‘I suppose I must look like a ghost now… maybe I just feel like one’) and defiant (‘You’re a wife, you’re a mother, you’re not a child.’ ‘Then why do I feel like one?’). Her monologues are always compelling and moving, especially the one where she speaks of being left immersed up to her neck in sand on the beach as a joke. Her emotions are palpable as she describes feeling as though she were being buried alive.

Esalan Gates, portraying the maid, immediately establishes a distinctive and convincing character; she perfectly conveys the maid’s chattiness, as well as her concern that the Woman should rest and recuperate. Her offer to give the trapped Woman a taste of what it is like outside by bringing her fresh flowers is touching. captures the patronising nature of John – the Woman’s husband – by creating a soft, suffocating tone for him as he falsely tells his wife ‘Already this place is doing you good’ and by constantly patting Bell on the shoulders in a subtle demonstration of patriarchal control and belittlement. succeeds in conveying the Doctor’s pompousness.

To conclude, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ has many engaging scenes (especially the use of shadow puppetry) and performances, but would benefit from more work on creating stand-out physical theatre routines.

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