You have probably heard the phrase Strong Female Character. She’s sort of like a unicorn: the elusive thing every woman wants, that men (male writers, that is) can never quite get their hands on. She’s a meaty, powerful role that’s fun to play and inspiring to see. The Strong Female Character is what will make for a more equitable, more feminist theatre – and maybe even a better world.
I don’t actually mean to sound facetious: I really do think that better representation of marginalized groups in all forms of art can do important political work. But the question of the Strong Female Character has vexed me for a while, and those thoughts surfaced again whilst watching Ruby Lawrence’s adaptation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story The Yellow Wallpaper.
I wanted to be certain to mention Gilman’s name here because the programme doesn’t (although the website does) and only once alludes to the fact that there was an ‘original text’ this play is based on. Though there’s no legal issue with this – the work is in the public domain – this oversight had me briefly thinking that I was losing my mind, and that this wasn’t actually meant to be an adaptation of Gilman’s story of an upper class wife prescribed rest and no stimulation by her well-meaning husband in order to help treat that Victorian classic, a ‘nervous disorder.’
But it definitely is: Gemma Yates-Round’s Alice suffers from what no one explicitly calls post-partum depression, and her husband and a sinister doctor suggest a remove to the country. Both women find themselves confined to a room with unsettling yellow wallpaper. Alice (Gemma Yates-Round) is a writer, and in a sort of perverse display of agency, she chooses the room with the yellow wallpaper for herself (the deceptively simple set is by Mayou Trikerioti, who somehow finds a shade of yellow that really does change with the light from almost a colour a human might intentionally use to a shocking sickly greenish hue), whereas Gilman’s nameless heroine isn’t really given any choice.
This backwards sort of empowerment typifies the play’s confused relationship to its source material. Alice is a contemporary character trapped in a surreal Victorian funhouse of sexism that blurs the lines between naturalism and allegory beyond recognition. Alice’s direct addresses to the audience are chatty and modern, but it’s impossible to believe under any realistic terms that a would-be writer would marry a man who thinks writing ‘warps the brain.’ But these overbearing male characters (all played, along with a conspiratorial housekeeper, by Charles Warner) don’t work as metaphor or satire either, as their characterisation is too broad to have any sting. It’s too obviously retrograde and evil to serve as any sort of challenging or necessary commentary for today.
Gilman’s depiction of her era’s oppression had a lighter touch. Her heroine’s reluctant faith in the good intentions of those around her are what lure her into that yellow room. She has the makings of a rebel, perhaps – she, too, likes to write, and resents her husband’s doubts about her health – but her determination to be tractable and good has made her fray at the seams. Society pushed her to the edge: her confinement is the last nudge over, not the first.
And that’s the adaptation’s problem. In what I assume was an urge to make her heroine strong and feminist, Lawrence misses that the weakness is the point. Gilman’s heroine’s decline is about much more than this single confinement, this one baby, this single series of weeks. The story just doesn’t work as well with the heroine as a cheeky feminist icon who has been, by all appearances, happily living a fulfilling life before now.
Gilman’s heroine insists that she is ill while her husband tries to assure her that there’s absolutely no reason for her to be so – no reason for her to be discontented, or uncomfortable, or sad. Lawrence’s Alice insists that she’s fine, and is violently forced to believe otherwise. Turning depression that is answered with earnest but smothering good intentions into a blatantly gaslight-y sexist conspiracy strips away the story’s subtly-mounting suspense. And updating Alice but not her oppressors strands the play in a no man’s land between update and direct adaptation that doesn’t really do justice to either idea.
The creative team’s interest in telling a story that condemns sexism and valorises female creativity is admirable. But Gilman’s story was written for a specific moment and in reference to specific social norms. It doesn’t sting quite as sharply as social commentary anymore, but it’s endured for reasons beyond just historical interest: it’s creepy and clever as hell. The heroine is just as strong as she needs to be. Things are scarier when they go unsaid. In more ways than one, the team behind this version of The Yellow Wallpaper don’t give Gilman enough credit.
The Yellow Wallpaper is on until 24 June 2018 at the Omnibus Theatre. Click here for more details.