Review: The Yellow Wallpaper at the Omnibus Theatre

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.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

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.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

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.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Window at the Bread and Roses Theatre

In a world of reality TV and social media, it’s all too easy to fall into the habit of obsessively observing other people’s lives, and then comparing them to our own. In Ron Elisha’s Window, this voyeurism reaches new heights when married couple Grace and Jimmy spot their neighbours having sex, seemingly at all hours of the day and night.

It all begins as a bit of slightly naughty fun, even helping to rekindle the dormant sex life of the exhausted new parents. But when Grace falls pregnant with their second child, her interest in the young, beautiful couple across the way – in her mind, an earlier version of herself and Jimmy – starts to develop into an unhealthy obsession that affects her work, health and family life.

Photo credit: Greg Goodale

The two-hander play deals sensitively with issues of pre- and post-natal depression, with Idgie Beau giving a strong performance as an increasingly distressed Grace. Charles Warner is equally impressive as Jimmy, whose initial amusement soon gives way to concern for the wellbeing of his wife and baby, balanced against his frustration over her neglect of their family. Although there are moments in the story of their relationship that feel unlikely, the actors’ portrayal of it is entirely convincing.

Covering five years without ever leaving the couple’s bedroom, it would have been easy for scenes to run together, but director Dave Spencer breaks up the action with costume changes and brief musical interludes, while references in the script keep us up to speed on how much time has passed. Even so, things do start to slow ever so slightly towards the end, as the subjects of Grace’s obsession go through a personal crisis, and she dissolves again and again into panicked tears on their behalf while Jimmy tries to console her. It’s only when she finally takes action that the cycle is broken, and Grace’s recovery can begin – a moment that’s beautifully played by the actors but in terms of plot development feels a bit too neat, given all that’s gone before.

There are a few other moments where we’re required to suspend our disbelief in order to make the story work: the fact that the neighbours would never, in five years, consider closing the curtains or turning the light off, for instance; or that given the ever more blatant gawking from Grace and Jimmy, who can clearly see every detail, the other couple would never notice them. But that’s what makes the play such a perfect metaphor for social media – by putting our lives on display, we effectively open the curtains and allow anyone to see in. We know they’re there, and we kind of like it that way… but providing others with free access to our everyday lives means they inevitably see the bad as well as the good.

Photo credit: Greg Goodale

The situation in which Grace and Jimmy find themselves is one that the vast majority of us will never need to deal with (or let’s hope not, anyway) – but that doesn’t stop Window being highly relevant to a generation that’s as addicted to sharing as we are to observing. Although it could use a little more pace towards the end, this is an entertaining and unsettling new play that will definitely make you think twice about leaving the curtains open.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Dave Spencer and Ron Elisha, Window

“It’s a dramatic exploration of the nature of intimacy. What constitutes a relationship? How great is the distance between two people before they no longer matter to one another? Does it indeed take two to tango?”

Window is a new play by four-time Australian Writers’ Guild Award winner Ron Elisha, opening at the Bread and Roses on 29th August in a co-production from The So & So Arts Club and Another Soup.

“The two characters, Grace and Jimmy, appear to be living a normal life, and then suddenly, without warning, their lives are turned upside down – but not in the way you’d expect,” director Dave Spencer explains. “Ron has written a wonderful treatment of the trials of suffering with pre- and post-natal depression, and the possibility that it can become a form of psychosis.”

The play’s very loosely based on a true story Ron heard on a podcast: “I’ve made significant changes in order to render the story as a drama rather than narrative – including significant changes in the narrative itself – but the whole notion of the space between people has always fascinated me, and this scenario struck me as the ideal vehicle through which to explore the various facets of the issue.

“If you’re interested in human relationships, meaning, and notions of moral accountability, then this is the play for you. The play is a fine balance between humour and the whiff of tragedy, and will send audiences out thinking. And talking. Lots to talk about.”

Window tackles the insipid social media addiction of the modern age, the narcissism inherent in our everyday lives, in that we can no longer look at ourselves without looking at others,” says Dave. “We see our own reflection in the window that is supposed to show us the world. What is private and public has become so blurred that we no longer have any idea who we are. This is such an important issue in today’s society, where everything is played out behind a screen, be it on the telly, in the cinema, or from behind a computer. More and more, our lives are not our own, and it’s so important that we don’t lose the importance of real human connection and intimacy, and that’s what this play demonstrates and challenges so well – it’s about the need for connection when there really is none and cannot be.”

It’s not the first time Dave and Ron have worked together, and they’re both thrilled to be teaming up again on Window. “Dave’s a young director with a very clear vision, not only for the sort of work that interests him, but also for the means through which to express it best,” says Ron. “His choices are unerring, and he makes it all seem so effortless – though I’m sure it’s not. He has a great understanding of and feeling for human relationships – frightening for someone of his relatively tender years! – and makes it all happen with a minimum of fuss. I’d work with him again in a heartbeat. In fact, we will be working on a return season of The Soul Of Wittgenstein early in 2018, as well as other projects in the future.”

Dave’s equally effusive in his praise for Ron and the rest of the team: “I just think Ron is an incredible writer – he is so sensitive to the audience and the director, and really, the plays direct themselves. Although I do hope that I’ve had some part in putting it together…

“I’ve known our actors Idgie Beau and Charles Warner since university, and they have both since completed degrees at drama school, RADA and Oxford respectively. They are phenomenal actors and also theatre makers in general. They have such great chemistry as well, which, given the subject matter, is vitally important!

“I’m also so pleased to be working with Sam Pope on the trailer, as he has done a few of our trailers in the past; and Jo Turner, who is a long time collaborator, has come back to compose a wonderful track ‘Beyond Our Walls’, which is available to buy online, and is featured in both the teaser and the full trailers. And finally, it’s so exciting to have Clancy Flynn back as my go-to lighting designer. We share a real working language and she just lights things absolutely beautifully. I cannot wait to see what she does with the text!”

As well as Window, both Ron and Dave have plenty of other projects to keep them busy. “Personally, I’m always working,” says Ron. “Right now, I’m working on a play – Left Bank Waltz – about a journalist trying to get an interview with a famous actress. It was inspired by the famous Esquire article entitled ‘Sinatra has a Cold’, a brilliant long form piece born of the journalist’s inability to get to talk to the great man himself. It’s about the nature of identity and, in a strange, tangential way, is almost a modern reworking of Citizen Kane. I’m very excited about it.”

Dave’s Artistic Director of Another Soup, which was formed in 2010 when he was at university in Durham. “We were a small group of students who wanted to put on shows that were a little out of the ordinary, and so we did just that, utilising non-traditional spaces. We did two sell-out promenade covered market performances of a new musical version of Sweeney Todd, a dance-theatre piece based on Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, and a puppetry piece based on The Jungle Book, among Edinburgh Fringe productions and others. Then we moved to London and have continued to work with each other since, at the King’s Head and The Hope Theatres.

“And my full-time job is as Co-Producer at The So & So Arts Club, which is a 1,300-strong members organisation, bringing together artists from nine countries over paid work. And apart from that, as Ron mentioned, we are remounting Wittgenstein, and there are some other things that are very exciting in the offing. But in the meantime, I hope people will come and see Window, which is going to be hugely exciting.”

Book now for Window at the Bread and Roses from 29th August-16th September. You can also support the production’s Kickstarter campaign, which closes on Friday 4th August.