Review: The Yellow Wallpaper ~ theatre notes

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Review: The Yellow Wallpaper

The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, adapted by Peter Evans and Anita Hegh, directed by Peter Evans. Design by Adam Gardnir, lighting by Luke Hails, sound by Roger Alsop. With Anita Hegh. The Tower @ the Malthouse until November 26.

I saw The Yellow Wallpaper at the Store Room in March last year, where it was already a remarkable show. On its reincarnation at the Tower, it is an even better remarkable show. It seems silly to rewrite my earlier observations, so below, to save you the trouble of clicking through, I will reprint my March review.

Of course, it isn't exactly the same show. Without losing a certain necessary roughness, the venue permits subtle refinements of staging and lighting, of which Peter Evans and Luke Hails take full advantage. But what has most impressively richened, in both nuance and depth, is Anita Hegh's performance. She has found an accuracy and clarity of gesture and voice that gives this text a harder and more tragic edge although, paradoxically, the real revelation of this production is its comedy, the black lustre of Gilman's ironic wit.

What was already more than good has become great: this is a stunning performance of a fascinating text. But don't take my word for it: go and see for yourself. You'll be sorry if you miss it. Meanwhile, here is what I wrote last time:

AS SOON as Anita Hegh props herself primly on a wooden schoolroom chair and glances neurotically at her right hand, as if it were some wild animal that might escape any moment, you realise that you're in for a special performance. Nothing that follows disabuses this expectation.

It's an enactment of a short story by the early feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in which an unnamed woman who is being treated for a nervous condition is confined by her doctor husband in a room decorated with particularly ugly wallpaper. The story traces her mental breakdown through a series of snatched diary entries. The Yellow Wallpaper rivals Georg Buchner's story Lenz as a compelling depiction of the subjectivity of madness, notable for both its imaginative expressiveness and the almost clinical precision of its observations.

In a 1913 article, Gilman was very clear about why she wrote this semi-autobiographical work. "For many years," she wrote, "I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown ... During about the third year of this trouble I went ... to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still-good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to 'live as domestic a life as far as possible,' to 'have but two hours' intellectual life a day,' and 'never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again' as long as I lived. This was in 1887.

"I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over. Then, using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist's advice to the winds and went to work again - work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite - ultimately recovering some measure of power.

"Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, with its embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it. ...Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper. It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked."

Gilman's passionate account here implies much of the history of female neurosis and its relationship to the medical profession; and more precisely, the difficulties faced by creative women in restrictive patriarchal societies that find such women to be, at best, oddities, and at worst, monstrous. In these contexts normal human desires, such as the wish for meaningful work or satisfying sex, are considered the province of men; when they appear in women, they are thought to be pathological or wicked.

The historical repression of intelligent and passionate women, from witch burnings to hysterectomies to institutionalisation, is not within my purview here; but it's a gruesome and sad and ongoing story. It is easy to say, in Melbourne in 2005, that those times are now long past; but the persistence of conditions like anorexia nervosa or the obsession with celebrity culture suggest that, even here, contemporary ideals of femininity might be little less imprisoning now than they were a century ago.

Hegh's performance is a compelling physicalisation of the fractures and deformations that the imposition of the "feminine" can do to a woman's self. In the beginning, Hegh sits or stands in poses that are exaggeratedly prim, her neck and chin extended like a mannerist painting, and the strange calmness of her voice has an anxious, nail-biting edge. But there are more violent disturbances in this ladylike facade; her body does not appear to wholly belong to her. She jumps with sudden, neurotic intakes of breath; she strikes strange poses, grotesque parodies of the feminine grace of a ballerina; her eyes flicker, as if her face were a prison through which her soul fleetingly and pleadingly emerges, only to vanish into the repetitious tics of conventional womanhood.

Her right hand, her working hand, is a focus of anguish and desire. Forbidden by her husband to write, she makes her diary entries furtively, obsessively recording her observations of the "optic horror" of the yellow wallpaper in the room where she is genteely imprisoned as a kind of sick child. In keeping with her infantalisation, this room is a former nursery, and the windows are barred. Eventually she becomes convinced that the ghastly patterns conceal a creeping woman who is attempting to get out; but that woman, of course, is herself.

The wallpaper itself becomes a potent symbol of the inscrutable and devious social codes by which the woman is disempowered. "On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind. The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing. You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back-somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you..."

The increasing sense of dislocation and imbalance is intensified by the cunning use of props and lighting; Hegh might put on a single high-heeled shoe, forcing her to limp, or don sunglasses that mask her face with a terrifying maenad-like anomymity. A wedding dress becomes at once the symbol of her imprisonment and the badge of her illness. When at last the woman breaks free into madness - the only freedom left open to her - Hegh growls the text through a microphone, declaiming like a rock star poet.

Peter Evans directs The Yellow Wallpaper with nuance and precision; it's inventively lit and the sound design, using music and pre-recorded text, is spare and effective. Without any fuss, the staging frames and focuses Hegh's performance admirably. On all levels, The Yellow Wallpaper is a very classy piece of work: riveting, disturbing and beautiful.

Picture: Anita Hegh in The Yellow Wallpaper. Photo: Peter Evans


philippa_moore said...

Alison, thank you for recommending this play so strongly. Based on your review I went and saw it last night.

To say I was mesmerised is a vast understatement. It is one of those performances that will stay with me for a very, very long time.

Thank you for advocating the arts and theatre the way you do. More of it needs to be done!

Best wishes,

Alison Croggon said...

Music to my ears, Phillipa! I'm delighted your enjoyed it as much as I did.