Tinted in screaming bright ruby colours and lurid morals, the Pre-Raphaelite beauties are oddly quiet, their lives brief footnotes on the under-funded fringes of an increasingly lucrative brotherhood. Jeremy Green’s new play puts Lizzie Siddal at the centre of a not especially radical repainting of ten years of High Victorian artistic life.
From its opening scene, which depicts Siddal’s notorious exhumation – her husband Rosetti wanted to get back the poems he buried with her – it’s clear that no well-mossed stone will be left unturned. Siddal rubs shoulders with a who’s who of mid-nineteenth century painting – Walter Deverell, Millais, Holman Hunt, Ruskin, and then falls into the inviting arms of Rossetti, who draws her well-turned features and easily-flattered heart into his firmly self-centred orbit. These vignettes make for plenty of comedy, as Siddal drowns in offers from artists, like so many bluff, top-hatted sharks, to sit for a bewildering array of roles – all just as unattainable as soggy Ophelia for this tradesman’s daughter.
Siddal’s seduction takes place at a clip, sped by Lotte Wakeham’s pacy, televisual devices and short snappy scenes that keep things moving along, but create an artificial feel – it’s hard to become fully immersed in a world that’s so full of clever nods and constant shoe-horned in quotes from the most obvious bits of Wordsworth and Shelley and Shakespeare. But this lively, poppy approach stops short at Siddal’s and Rosetti love affair, which is all decline and no fall – the play is dominated by their bickering about when they’ll marry, with little of the initial passion that would make sense of why they stayed together at all. The piece’s direction confines their liaisons to one staid kiss, just before Siddal finally agrees to head bed-wards, while Jeremy Green’s text reauthors Rossetti from a man who showered his mistress with cutesy nicknames and painted her, on their marriage, as Queen of Hearts, into a capricious cold fish whose passion is lost, in Byronic style, as soon as she submits to his affections.
It’s hard to get a handle on this boyishly selfish interpretation of Rossetti, which lacks the bleak intensity you’d expect from his deeply felt and wrought artistic output – especially when there’s so little to differentiate him from the play’s other, similarly puppyish painters. Ruskin is an exception, with an intriguing, subtly creepy academic detachment that motivates him to sponsor Siddal’s step off the model’s plinth to pick up brushes herself. Emma West as Siddal herself makes her part beautifully believable, elegantly sidestepping the more mawkish matter of her descent into madness. But Green’s text’s diligent need to cover all the historical ground – often descending to passages of explication that feel obvious or unnecessary – means that the social factors in Siddal’s decline are awkwardly telescoped or caricatured.
Fellow model Annie Miller is made the literal whore to Siddal’s Madonna, broadly chirping about being on the game since she was twelve like Eliza Doolittle’s more raucous little sister. These rare steps into working class life are played for laughs – like the grocery seller’s shouted argument with his wife about warty apples and laudanumed babies – instead of helping to make sense of odd space Siddal inhabited, elevated by beauty and perfect manners out of an ordinary family life we never see.
Siddal’s brief stay at Sheffield Art School, cutting an eccentric figure in the artistic draperies she designed herself, is fascinating, but too brief – this moment of independence aside, this play traps her in Rossetti’s shadow, as a soft splash of colour at the centre of a crowd of dapper men. It’s a comforting rehearsal of a fascinating story, painted on a familiar brown background, but there’s no bright white light shone into the murkier corners of Siddal’s demise.