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 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.