Saturday, 9 March 2019

The Yellow Wallpaper - Theatre Review

What: The Yellow Wallpaper
When: 6 - 17 March 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Adapted,devised and designed by: Laurence Strangio and Annie Thorold
Performed by: Annie Thorold
Lighting by: Jason Crick
Stage Managed by: Laura Barnes
Annie Thorold - photo by Jack Dixon-Gunn
The Yellow Wallpaper is a gothic horror classic tale written in 1892 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. A favourite of stage tellings, Strangio and Thorold have chosen to remediate it for the stage once more to coincide with the story being included on the VCE reading list. This time it is a physical theatre presentation taking place at La Mama Courthouse.

The Yellow Wallpaper was a novella written in response to Gilman being ordered to 'perfect' bed rest experiencing what would now be considered post-natal depression. The prescription was complete inactivity including no writing and no walking around. In effect, she was imprisoned in solitary confinement for 3 months. At the end of that time Gilman had had enough, returned to her usual writing and other activities and wrote The Yellow Wallpaper to attempt to change her physician's treatment methods and be done with the 'resting cure' for women.

The story itself centres around a woman with a baby who has been taken to a country estate for a 3 month rest period herself. She is placed in a room of what she describes as a haunted house. There are bars on the window. the bed is bolted down and there are rings around the walls. The room has an odd yellow wallpaper with layered patterns and scratch marks along the lower halves of the wall and the bedposts are gnawed. Her husband shares the room with her at night and her sister-in-law tends the baby and looks after (spies on?) her during the day. The Woman does not have contact with the baby at all.

As time goes by The Woman becomes obsessed with the wallpaper and starts seeing another woman in the weave. This woman seems trapped between the layers of patterns and creeps around as if trying to escape. The Woman's madness grows as she starts identifying with the woman in the wallpaper and she starts seeing the heads of dead women hanging in the pattern as well - other women who had tried to escape the bars of the wallpaper. Whilst the ending is not explicit, it involves a rope, a complete descent into madness, and a fainting husband... Make of that what you will.

I first encountered this story in the Melbourne Fring Festival last year in a show called Night Terrors and I absolutely loved it. As well as being a well crafted psychological horror story it has a strong and modern feminist tone which is why it is an important story to bring forward in current times.

Night Terrors worked on a traditional verbal story telling technique which allowed audiences to infer the truth through the dramatic ironies in the writing. The deliberate under (and counter) statements which seem so safe and secure are seething with truths about the circumstances which are so much more dangerous and horrific because we imagine them in our minds. Just as The Woman sees the woman trapped behind the pattern of the wallpaper, we see the victim trapped behind the niceties and understatement of language and respectability.

Choosing to rework the story as physical theatre is an interesting one because in effect it brings the inferred to the forefront. What is hidden becomes revealed so to speak. Is that more powerful or less? The answer to that depends on the skill of the performer.

In this production the story is narrated by Thorold as a voice over. On stage she is The Woman trapped in the room, occassionally echoing the text, but always shifting and moving in the space. It is a powerful choice which was unfortunately weakened by placing the loudspeakers at the back of the stage. This caused the recording to lose intelligibility as it echoed around the unadorned Courthouse walls and also deprived the audience of a sense of oppression which would have strongly emerged if the speakers were right over our heads.

A wonderful meta-sense of The Woman being an object of microscopic investigation in the same way the woman in the wallpaper was to her would have cascaded through our subconscious in a very uncomfortable way with different speaker placement. Having said that, there was a strong blurring of which woman Thorold actually was regardless. I guess I am saying it just could have been stronger. Especially when matched with Strangio's and Crick's closing down of the space as the story progressed.

The biggest disappointment for me was Thorold's physical work. The Yellow Wallpaper is all about state of mind so I expected physicality which represented mental and emotional breakdown and exhaustion. The show is only aroun 40 minutes, but given the unrelenting tension of the story I expected Thorold to be exhibiting exhaustion by the end. Having literally reached the end of her tether, The Woman is lost and the fight is not just to the end, it is past it. There should have been nothing left if the tank - or at least it should have looked like it for the audience.

Thorold is a very fit, strong and flexible woman and her running around the space, lurking, leaping and generally gadding about was fine at first, but it never broke down. She never loses focus. She never demonstrates confusion or self absorption.

Thorold never stops presenting to us. She is never lost. This is the problem with the show. She never breaks down as does the protagonist. She is never defeated. She is never not in control. And thus the story of The Yellow Wallpaper is never actually told.

1.5 Stars

6 comments:

  1. Samsara,

    your judgement of our work seems to be based on your interpretation of the story rather than on any objective understanding of (or attempt to understand) the purpose in ours or any reconsideration of the story itself.

    I am at a loss to comprehend the critique in your review.

    Is it that the performer is too physically able, skilled and flexible? - perhaps that is what is required in a physical-theatre-based adaptation…

    Is it that the physicality does not represent the crushing of the woman? - perhaps that was not our intent…

    Is it that the focus of the performer is such that she enters fully into the obsession and subsequent empowerment of the protagonist? - perhaps that was not what you were expecting…

    You state that the performer is “never lost … never defeated … never not in control”, that “she never demonstrates confusion or self-absorption”. ALL of these things are clearly present in the performance in the early scenes where the woman struggles with her post-natal state of mind and with the prescriptive behaviour of her husband. The difference is that at the end we do not present her as ‘lost’, ‘defeated’, ‘not in control’ - for that was never our intention.

    At the end of the story the woman is free. She is not ‘broken down’. She is liberated. (Whether by ‘madness’ or the breaking of societal pattern is ambiguous, both in the story & in our interpretation.)

    Your wish, it seems, is that by the end “the woman is lost”, that you “expected physicality that represented mental and emotional breakdown and exhaustion”. We beg to differ.

    You are of course entitled to your opinion of the story, and you clearly have the forum to express it.

    We too have a strong and considered interpretation of this story and have crafted it meticulously to express what is both obvious and what is subtextual, with a full understanding of the material and of the implications of our interpretation.

    I am honestly not concerned at the difference in our opinions about the story. (That is what makes this story so fascinating.) Also, I am glad that you enjoyed someone else’s dramatic interpretation of it - that is fine. It is just that ours being different does not make it invalid.

    What concerns me most Samsara is that your expectations have led you to pass judgement on our production in a manner that is not objective and is in fact insulting.

    To give this production a meagre 1.5 stars is to say that it has very little creative merit and is basically not worth seeing - that it is essentially unprofessional and lacking in artistic rigour.

    Is that your intention?

    If so, then please back it up with more substantial criticism and examples of our artistic inability, not simply a difference of interpretative opinion.

    You need to be more conscious of the subjective expectations that you bring to the work and on which you are basing your opinions, and of the objective merit and impact of the judgements you are making.

    I am not going to pick apart the rest of your review, other than to correct your inference that this production is being done simply to take advantage of it “being included on the VCE reading list” (!?)

    The fact is that the VCAA have selected this production specifically to include on the VCE Drama Playlist for the quality of its dramatic merit, based on a considered and rigorous application and decision process. It is not simply our seeming opportunism to “coincide with” any so-called “reading list”.

    In fact, I do wish that you could attend some of the VCE student forums where you would hear the fascinating discussions that the production provokes in response to the story and its contemporary relevance, as well as its dramatic challenges and performative revelations.

    Please take more care in future.

    Respectfully,

    Laurence Strangio (director and co-devisor)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Laurence,

    Thanks for responding. I do hear what you are saying but I believe the writer's intention is always first and foremost. I am aware that around the turn of the century there was a strong theatrical belief that directors could do what they wanted, but I am not of that school of thought and it is a rapidly diminishing belief as writers stand up for their art.

    Glickman's intentions were always that The Woman was irreparably lost. She wrote the story as a means to try and stop the 'rest cure' for woman precisely because of the harm it did. It is a cautionary tale.

    To change the outcome to one where The Woman is supposedly empowered is not only to deny the intentions of the writing but also to say it is okay to treat women that way because it really is good for them in the end.

    To say the ending is ambiguous is somewhat naive. Yes, the consequences are not specifically spelt out but I defy you to point to anything in the text which contextually leads to that conclusion (remembering that the form of POV is one of dramatic irony).

    My opinion is also supported by pretty much every academic assessment of this story so I don't feel alone in that. Changing the intention of this work is like drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa and so, in my opinion, that deserves a rating of 1.5 by itself.

    I was trying to be considerate to the performer by not talking too much about the physical theatre aspect, but you force me to publish on this topic. The physical work was, in my opinion, banal and unoriginal. I have seen everything that was done a million times before, although usually with more emotion.

    I applaud you both for using every part of the space possible, but in the end it looked like a class on 'how to use every part of the stage in a performance' in drama school. Even the stripping back of the clothing layers and undoing the hair was text book drama 101.

    In fact, this consideration does make it perfect for VCE, but that does not make it good professional theatre which ticket holders pay real money for.

    My other disappointment is with the voice over. Aside from the concerns about loudspeaker placement which I talk about in the review, the voice over was bland and emotionless again. It demonstrated no affect and therefore had no effect.

    I note that in Cameron Woodhead's review he is stunned by the lack of anger in the piece. As a woman and a feminist I am positively outraged by what I saw in your production and this is why I say you did not tell the story of The Yellow Wallpaper.

    Glickman wrote a strident and urgent feminist work designed to free women and instead you gave us a fairytale with a Disney ending.

    I take great care in my reviews and I pay a lot of attention to dramaturgies. Not only is this production very average from a performance making perspective, but the fact it ignores the author's intent, in my opinion, makes it almost criminal for you to call it by that name.

    Yes, I really am that upset. We are living in a time when women are finally starting to make headway towards equality and for you to blunt such a powerful instrument as Glickman's story makes me furious.

    We were supposed to be horrified by what was done to The Woman. Glickman wanted us to be incited to create change. This is not what you gave us.

    Regards.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Laurence Strangio15 March 2019 at 14:39

    Oh Samsara,

    I would love to have a reasonable discussion with you about intention and interpretation and ambiguity and dramatic irony as well as writing and directing (and feminism too, if I might be allowed to engage in that) - and to consider the various readings and aims of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s (not “Glickman’s”) story - but your mind is clearly made up and so there is no point in engaging here.

    I will leave you to your outrage and to your blog forum (where you will undoubtedly have the last word) and I will engage in the theatre of ideas where discussion does not mean taking sides (or unnecessary critical swipes), and more than one point of view is possible…

    Respectfully again,

    Laurence

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Laurence. Yes, I apologise for the Glickman error. I am in the middle of a crazy week. I do find it interesting that men who don't agree with me tend to feel it is okay to characterise me as unreasonable or unread or other less than cognitive, intelligent, or an industry expert. If you disagree with me why are you not the unreasonable one? I also want to point out that all reviewing is subjective. The is no such thing as an objective opinion. It is an oxymoron. A reviewer makes their comments based on their knowledge, experience and the digital paradigm in which they sit. The problem with your production is you have taken it to make a commentary on post-Natal depression when it is a story about the effects of imprisoning women to make them 'better'. The point about the rings on the walls, the scratched wallpaper, the gnawed bed which is booked to the floor, is that this woman is not the first to have been imprisoned there. Gilman is saying the cut for percieved mental instability was causing a deeper and more deadly madness. It does not surprise me you cannot see this in the work because you are unlikely to have lead a life where you are constantly excluded and disenfranchised 'for your own good'. But then, I am probably bring unreasonable...

      Regards

      Delete
  4. And yes, autocorrect is my Mortal enemy!

    ReplyDelete
  5. It's difficult to find critics who write earnestly with a keen eye and knowledge for theatre - and whatdidshethink is one of the most reliable sources in Melbourne when it comes to honest reviewing.

    It's always difficult to stomach criticism. Having co-run an independent theatre in Melbourne for three years with Gabrielle Savrone (The Owl and Cat Theatre), our artistic team has seen a spectrum of stars from Samsara - from 0 - 5! But once you learn to digest the criticism, it really does add to the growth of an artist.

    We've bred a culture in Melbourne that has a distaste for a sincerely critical review. We seek praise when reading reviews. But that doesn't help Melbourne's art culture grow. It only creates a stagnating arts scene. It's these hard-to-digest reviews, that will yield the most reward for the artists in question. It's not an easy task, but learn from them, put them aside, and then continue on the quest of making great theatre.

    ReplyDelete