Victorian Popular Fictions 6.1 12 Leaf

Stephanie Mohr (dir.), The Yellow Wallpaper (theatre show). Coronet Theatre, London, UK. 27 September – 07 October 2023

Reviewed by Janette Leaf

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 Recommended citation: Leaf, Janette. 2024. Review of The Yellow Wallpaper (2023 theatre show), Victorian Popular Fictions, 6.1 (Spring): 136-8. ISSN: 2632-4253 (online) DOI: https://‌doi.‌‌org/‌10.46911/UJIB6594

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper acquires new relevance in the wake of claustrophobic lockdowns necessitated by the COVID pandemic, and her tale of declining mental health hemmed in by the same four walls has recently been experiencing something of a transmedia moment. Kevin Pontuti directed the 2021 film for Hysteria Pictures. Dani Howard scored the opera for mezzo-soprano, cello and piano, which premiered in the UK at Sadler’s Wells in September 2023. That same month, a dramatised version directed by Stephanie Mohr opened at the Coronet Theatre, London. This review of the ephemeral theatrical event adopts the present tense to reflect the immediacy of the audience’s engagement with the drama. Because the script of the one-act play never deviates from Gilman’s words, it is possible to take all references from a freely available reprint of the 1892 original (Gilman 2016).

Any adaptation might be expected to make much of the colour and disorienting giddiness of the yellow wallpaper’s convoluted design, but the Coronet Theatre’s production does neither. While the walls of the 2021 film suggest overblown vegetation drowning in a stagnant pond of mustard, the Coronet instead opts for a heavy focus on neutral-toned paper and almost never deploys the bilious yellow so much emphasised in the core text. Paper is on the backdrop and lies in crumpled strips on the floor. Paper is presented as that which covers, and which is itself covered by shadows, by projected images, and by being written upon. Paper is to be understood as symbolic of imprisonment and salvation. Its mood is altered by clever manipulation of lighting ranging from subtle to stark, but what the theatre’s puzzling choice of bland colour palette misses is the opportunity to capitalise on the “old, foul, bad” (22) olfactory connotations of yellow’s less pleasant shades.

“The Yellow Wall-paper” first appeared in the New England Magazine in 1892 under Gilman’s first married name of Charlotte Perkins Stetson and was accompanied by illustrations by Joseph Henry Hadfield. Since then, it has been much re-printed without the hyphen, and much commented upon even by the author herself. Gilman’s “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper” appeared in The Forerunner in October 1913 and is included in the 2016 re-print (7-8) along with original magazine illustrations (9, 24, 31). Gilman discusses her motivation for writing the story, its reception by psychiatrists of the day, and their subsequent changes to the treatment of female mental illness. The text (and faithful play script) is a semi-autobiographical account of an intelligent woman’s incarceration, her prevention from participating in any mentally stimulating activities, and her infantilisation by a patriarchal society while very likely suffering from post-partum depression. Her medically qualified husband (21) decrees she should follow a cure comprising confinement and total rest, yet he continues to lie with her. His sister attends to her in a nursing capacity. The woman is isolated in a top-floor room, which, with its barred windows, may have been a nursery (13, 14, 16, 20) or something more sinister.

At the Coronet, the audience’s entry is routed via the studio space where they encounter the dancer, Fukiko Takase, clad in a white cotton smock and wearing startlingly red socks. She performs balletic gymnastics on a wrought-iron double bed, at times bouncing like a juvenile and at others throwing herself down in desperation. On emerging into the intimate auditorium, the audience is confronted by a large stage set cluttered with a length of heavy rope, a fallen chair, crumpled lengths of wallpaper and – significantly – a swathed pram. Linen garments suspended from wires hover like the ghosts of former occupants. Upstage of the detritus on a grimy mattress is the woman played by Aurelia Thiérrée. Thiérrée scribbles manically on scraps of torn-off wallpaper or scratches on the wall against which Takase is projected in real-time and larger than life, interspersing her gyrations with penetrating stares. The pale, knee-length under-slip of the woman on stage acts as another screen against which the image of the dancer is overlayed. Female figures merge, and the dancer’s red socks become superimposed onto Thiérrée’s lap where they manifest as the shedding of blood during menstruation. Thiérrée delivers Gilman’s words verbatim and her monologue imbues the objects around her with meaning. Visual stimuli are aurally reinforced by white noise to underscore her troubled thoughts. Off-stage, a baby cries. On hearing it, the woman tears off the cover of the pram, revealing it to be full of yet more wallpaper, as if paper is a substitute for the child she is denied. She writes because she is not free. She writes because she cannot function as a mother, a revelation that the drama – in contrast to the text – shares too soon.

What she writes upon are not the pristine blank pages of a notebook as envisaged by Hadfield (9), but long strips of “dead paper” (11) torn from the wall. She uses the plain underside, and this is what the audience is predominantly exposed to. Therein lies a problem. Gilman’s description of the wallpaper’s “hideous” (22) colour and “torturing” (22) design is expressed in the strongest terms as “optic horror” (18), yet there is almost nothing to be seen of that in the stage version. Gilman’s words are informed by her studies of the theory of interior decorating (18), a subject on which she would elaborate in The Home: Its Work and Influence of 1903. The Coronet’s adaptation undermines her criticism of what should have been the room’s key feature by presenting the audience with a wallpaper neither sufficiently patterned nor properly yellow. It demonstrates an over-reliance on technical effects. Although those effects work well to create the illusion of bars on the windows and multiple shadow women on the walls, they are less successful in suggesting what in the source text induces claustrophobia and  hallucinations.  Softly-spoken  Thiérrée  declaims  her  dislike  for  the  mural  décor,  but  she is doing so in a space visually disconnected from the title of its own production and from Gilman’s tale.

On occasion, Thiérrée stands unsteadily on one leg gesturing towards her unstable mental state, slamming down the palm of her hand when mimicking her coercive husband. Interactions with him are unwitnessed by the audience. The only roles in the drama (as in Howard’s opera) are the imprisoned wife and her alter-ego dancer, who engage with each other and with the objects around them: paper, pram, mattress, and rope. As desperation to liberate the woman trapped behind the paper intensifies, Thiérrée is joined on stage by Takase creeping around the perimeter. When the two women clasp each other, it is no longer filmic manipulation blurring the boundaries of their bodies, but a physical intertwining in which they move with synchronicity. The device is a powerful one.

The prop of the heavy rope explicitly referenced in the text (29, 30) comes into its own as  the  woman  shapes  it  into  a  noose-like  loop  with  a  veiled  hint  that  she  may  choose  hanging as a way out so that she too might dangle like the disembodied clothes above her. The idea  is  planted  early  in  the  text  and  script  by  the  description  of  the  flamboyant  curves  of the wallpaper which “suddenly commit suicide” (11). She formulates a plan to bind the wallpaper dancer to stop her escaping, and imagines her own self fastened to the bed to prevent enforced removal. In the text, the rope is “well-hidden” (30) and may not even exist. On the stage, it is conjured into solidity.

The unconscious body of the proscriptive husband, over which the mother of his child repetitively creeps, is never shown, unlike in New England Magazine (31). A possible interpretation is that the patriarchal and matrimonial obstacles to liberation embodied in “that man” (31) are gone. Perhaps it foreshadows Gilman’s feminist utopia of Herland (Gilman 1915). In the drama, the ultimate relationship is that of the woman with the projection of her own mind, and the hour-long experience without interval is immersive and intense. The only shred of disappointment for a perhaps too literal reviewer is that there is no wholehearted embrace  of  the  “bloated  curves  and  flourishes”  (18)  of  “my  [yellow]  wallpaper”  (23,  reviewer’s emphasis).

 

Works Cited

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. 1892. The Yellow Wallpaper. Sweden: Wisehouse Classics, Reprint 2016. https://archive.org/‌details/yellowwallpaper0000gilm_b5r5/page/12/mode/2up.

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