Writer: Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Director: Stephanie Mohr
Written in 1892, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story offers so many readings that it’s still studied by university students today. Is the woman in the wallpaper the narrator’s alter ego attempting to break out of a patriarchal prison? Or is the ghostly woman a symbol of the narrator’s same-sex desire? The Coronet’s production is stunning to look at but its loyal adherence to the text means this Gothic tale ultimately disappoints.
The story invites other interpretations too. By interrogating the text, queer theorists and postcolonialists continue to reveal ideas about Victorian society, its taboos and prejudices, that have been forgotten. It’s a mysterious tale that refuses to be shut down with a single meaning.
A nameless narrator is taken by her physician husband to a country mansion to recuperate after an episode of hysteria. She is to undergo the rest cure, a popular remedy for hysteria at the time. She is to be confined to a room where she will not be allowed to socialise, read or write. This cure seems designed to make ‘ill’ women worse not better.
The room, in a clever design, looks both small and huge on the Coronet’s stage. The three sides of the woman’s sick room are placed at the back while at the front thickly woven ropes and nightgowns hang from the ceiling. It’s a haunting set that promises great things.
However, these promises are sunk when we realise that performer Aurelia Thiérrée is going to recite the whole text from memory. It takes about an hour. While an impressive feat, this Yellow Wallpaper lacks drama. There are a few moments of theatricality coming mainly from Mike Winship’s immersive sound design and Eduardo Strike’s stark lights, but these additions can’t hide the fact that this is a story being told rather than shown.
Behind the stage is another bed where performer Fukiko Takase dances and sleeps. She is filmed live and the images are projected onto the back of the narrator’s room where they, deliberately or perhaps not, are too big for the low wall. Faces and hands are too often cut off. Takase also appears on the main stage crawling around the wainscots like the figure in Paula Rego’s painting Dog Woman.
But in merely having Thiérrée narrate the text word for word director Stephanie Mohr has missed the opportunity to provide a radical interpretation of the classic tale. We are given no clue as to who Mohr thinks lies beneath the wallpaper. Only in the last second before the lights go out does Thiérrée gesture towards an answer. Mohr and the performers leave the text as open as the original.
Of course, this is a reasonable approach, but this production is less shocking than the images in the short story itself. Readers of The Yellow Wallpaper have been conjuring up more terrifying scenarios in their imagination for over 130 years.
Runs until 7 October 2023