Omnibus Theatre, London – until 24 June 2018
Adapted by Ruby Lawrence from a short story written in 1892 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper is an unsettling portrayal of a woman suffering from depression after the birth of her daughter. Separated from her baby and spirited away to the country by her husband John, Alice (Gemma Yates-Round) finds herself increasingly disturbed by one room in particular, believing she can see a woman moving behind the sickly yellow wallpaper.
Gilman, who was advised in 1887 to manage her own depression by having “but two hours’ intellectual life a day” and giving up writing altogether, wrote the story to explore the damaging effects of the treatment imposed on women by men. (She even sent a copy to her doctor and claimed he later confided to friends that he had changed his methods after reading it.) Lawrence’s adaptation goes a step further, hinting at a more sinister purpose behind Alice’s incarceration. The well-meaning but misguided doctor husband of Gilman’s story becomes two separate characters – albeit both played by the same actor (Charles Warner) – and with the addition of housekeeper Nancy, who’s recruited by the doctor, we begin to feel a creeping sense of conspiracy.
This is reinforced by our own bond with Alice which is established early on as she directly addresses us, confiding her hopes and fears for her future relationship with her daughter Violet, and later makes us complicit in her efforts to rebel against her treatment. We also see everything she sees; the yellow walls of the deceptively simple set designed by Mayou Trikerioti really do change significantly in appearance under Clancy Flynn’s lighting, and stretch in undeniably sinister fashion to allow glimpses of a figure pressing through from the other side. The fact that we share this vision suggests it isn’t only Alice’s paranoia, and perhaps there really are other forces at work.
Gemma Yates-Round gives an excellent performance as Alice; over the course of 70 minutes, we can see her gradually unravelling before our eyes from the poised, intelligent young woman who first meets the doctor to discuss her five-month pregnancy to the dishevelled figure obsessively clawing at the yellow walls. Meanwhile Charles Warner plays every other character – or rather he plays “Not-Alice”, leaving the true identity and even existence of Alice’s husband, doctor and housekeeper open to interpretation. This ambiguity calls for a subtlety in the performance which Warner successfully captures, simultaneously keeping the characters individual enough that we can differentiate between them, but similar enough that they could feasibly all merge into one.
Despite the strong performances, however, and an atmosphere of growing suspense effectively created by director Dave Spencer, the layers of ambiguity added to Gilman’s story for this adaptation mean the play at times feels overcomplicated, and leaves us with a frustrating multitude of possible interpretations of what’s really going on. Things are further confused by the addition of a fairy tale composed by Alice for her daughter, an act of rebellion in defiance of the others’ attempts to keep her from writing. This takes the plot away from the original text, and then ends abruptly as the play reaches its climax, with Alice so intent on passing on her story that the woman behind the wallpaper is left feeling like an afterthought. While all this certainly makes for a meaty post-show debate, for those who like their stories to have a beginning, middle and end the play may prove frustratingly open-ended.