Writer: Jeremy Green
Director: Lotte Wakeham
Reviewer: Lou Flaxman
Elizabeth Siddal is arguably the most famous face of pre-Raphaelite painting. Well-recognised as Rossetti’s first muse and the subject of thousands of his portraits, she was immortalised in one of the most significant paintings of the period, posing as the drowned Ophelia in Millais’ painting of the same name.
Jeremy Green’s new play at The Arcola charts the professional life of the eponymous model, from her discovery by Rossetti in William Holman Hunt’s studio, to her death at the age of 32.
Born in 1829 to a cutlery-maker and his wife, Lizzie worked as a milliner before being spotted by artists Walter Deverell and invited to model. Unusually for a woman of her social standing, Lizzie had learnt to read and write, which gave her access to the poetry of Shelley, Keats and Tennyson, whose work she developed a great passion for.
It was her education and her eloquence that set her apart from other models of the day, who were often seen to be coarse and ill-educated, and in Jeremy Green’s new play, it is the moment she exposes Rossetti for claiming one of Shelley’s poems as his own, that she transcends the rôle of artist’s tool and becomes a source of great intrigue in the male-dominated art world.
The play introduces us into a world of male ego, obsession and pride, and John Ruskin, Rossetti, Hunt and Millais proudly stomp about, waving paintbrushes and expounding on their own creative achievements and anxieties. Ruskin tells us that ‘no one remembers the individual, it’s the legacy that counts’, but Jeremy Green shows us a fragile, complicated and fascinating human story at the heart of one of arts most enduring movements.
Emma West, who co-produces and takes the title rôle, bears an uncanny resemblance to Millais’ Ophelia, with the same narrow mouth and large, smooth eyelids. West depicts Lizzie’s journey from statuesque and revered mute, to eloquent muse, before she finally becomes the tragic and sickly victim of male disinterest with great nuance.
West as Lizzie and Tom Bateman, who takes Rossetti from the blithering hyperbole of young obsession to the cruel detachment of a devoted artist with skill and conviction, are a compelling central pair. They are provided with strong support, in particular from the superb Daniel Crossley, whose wonderfully haughty portrayal of John Ruskin encapsulates the sneering art world to exquisite comic effect.
The play, which could have so easily been the clunky diatribe that pieces featuring influential figures often are, is rich, funny, moving and most crucially, has a human heart. The artists who claim to depict the deepest realms of emotional experience are shown to be oblivious to the realities of human feeling, so obsessed are they by their successes relative to each other. Lizzie Siddal, despite its uninspiring title, is a great piece of writing in a production that has been neatly and skillfully executed.