The Yellow Wallpaper – Omnibus Theatre, London

Writer:  Ruby Lawrence

Director:  Dave Spencer

Reviewer:  Richard Maguire

The most shocking thing about this Gothic play is the fact that nowhere in the ‘official’ programme is it noted that The Yellow Wallpaper is an adaption of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s seminal short story, first published in 1892. Gilman’s story is seen as an early feminist text; it’s a powerful story of a woman’s escape from patriarchal oppression. Sadly, little of Gilman’s spirit has made it into this new version.

In the late 1800s the ‘rest cure’ was imposed upon women who were suffering from hysterical  tendencies. These women were told that they should avoid all mental stimulation and avoid reading and writing, and just rest instead. Gilman’s story is an attack on this treatment suggesting that it could lead to further psychological problems. However, the text is so open-ended that it has inspired other interpretations too, including queer and postcolonial readings.

Ruby Lawrence’s adaptation has not caught this open-endedness and confuses the story by introducing a parallel plot in the form of a complicated fairy tale. Alice has just had a baby, but she’s not allowed to see it and she’s taken to an old house in the country to convalesce. It could be that Alice is suffering from postnatal depression, or perhaps there are other, more sinister, reasons she’s forced into seclusion. While in the house she is drawn to the yellow wallpaper in one of the rooms, and soon believes she can see something moving beneath it.

When Lawrence sticks to the original text, there are moments of tension, but her own inventions are less successful. Her fairy story, based on a Norse myth, is too convoluted and only distracts from the more pressing story of Alice’s plight with the wallpaper. Gemma Yates-Round as Alice is very likeable, especially when she addresses the audience as conspirators, but sometimes her ironic asides pierce any suspense. Charles Warner plays Not-Alice, which seems a portentous way in saying he plays all the other roles: the husband, the doctor, the housekeeper, and the Earth Man. Unfortunately, as there are no costume changes or characterisation it is sometimes difficult to know who Warner is playing.

Mayou Trikerioti’s set is a simple box with a chaise longue, or fainting couch as it was called in the hysteria epidemic of the nineteenth century. The colour of Gilman’s wallpaper is sickly and sulphuric, but here the yellow walls are fresh and spring-like. For sure, Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is open to new interpretations and could be updated with references to recent gender politics and to the ideas of pervasive surveillance, but Lawrence does not take these risks. This play only lasts an hour, but that hour could be spent reading – or re-reading – the original text, reaping greater rewards.

Runs until 24 June 2018 | Image:  Lidia Crisafulli

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Confused adaptation. 

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