Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella, The Yellow Wallpaper, has been adapted for the stage numerous times before but this latest version by Then This Theatre still feels relevant. This tale, of a woman’s mental and physical anguish as her mind and body are regulated and subjected to a punishing regime of treatments, including the infamous ‘rest cure’, manages – through Alyson Cummins’ set design and Maeve Fitzgerald’s frankly disturbing performance – to retain a sense of urgency.
How, why and by whom women’s bodies and minds are policed is a question that has been burning very brightly in the Irish psyche lately. As Fitzgerald stalks the edge of her room, staring at audience members seated at eye level, it is tempting to squirm and look away from a tacit accusation of complicity with a ruinous status quo.
Initially premiered at the 2011 ABSOLUT Fringe Festival, this one-woman show is directed by rising star Aoife Spillane-Hinks. With her tousled dark hair, loose night gown, and convincing American accent, Fitzgerald’s Mary is a frail, desperate figure. The character’s plight is subtly conveyed by a range of facial tics and bodily quirks that radiate the increasing manic energy and catastrophic decline of Gilman’s beleaguered narrator.
This is a tightly controlled production, with Sarah-Jane Shiels’ lighting – from ghostly moon-blue to the yellow-reddish hues of the setting sun – combining to reflect Mary’s intensifying delirium. Starting off with the quiet acceptance of the acquiescent Mary, the lighting becomes garish and threatening, swinging low to throw her shadow against the edge of the set, her threatening madness looming ever larger. Denis Clohessy’s score encroaches thrillingly at the end of each movement, further echoing the taut suspense of the play. This is a story of absences, the minimalism, lack of human contact and the absence of Mary’s newly born son, is mirrored by the sparse furniture of the room, the bolted down iron-bed and simple wooden stool. Her husband, John, an absent but all too present figure, is clearly far too ‘loving’, his concern a cruel incitement to Mary’s final, lunatic revolt.
But how to depict the wallpaper, the insidious mirage of Mary’s madness? Knowing that it is a metaphor for Mary’s increasing instability and dependency still doesn’t alleviate the morbid anticipation of seeing the wallpaper – I wondered if it would match a half-remembered memory of hideous, spiralling floral damask paper, tricked out in mossy greens and browns. Luckily Cummins’ set design moves beyond a trite attempt at realism, of the bulbous heads and gaping eyes, sickly, ghastly, smouldering yellows and the smooches of Gilman’s description. Instead the set is surrounded on all three sides by a gauzy black netting. Seats staggered on either side allow the audience to peer in at eye level through strategically placed rips. This gives the effect of a chorus – the audience looks in through the ‘windows’ of Mary’s room, surveying her decline. As the play draws closer to an end Fitzgerald haunts the edges of the set, gazing directly into the audience’s eyes, beseeching them to be something other than passive observers. Instead we become the ‘creep, creep, creeping’ figures inhabiting the wallpaper, flitting down the avenues outdoors, pressuring in on Mary’s consciousness, and helping her to a denouement of full throttle psychosis.
While Spillane-Hinks in interview refuses an easy parity between feminism and her adaptation, citing that the play is essentially about humanity, the question of who regulates a woman’s body, how it is done, and the supporting ideologies that implicitly naturalise the incarceration and control of Gilman’s ‘blessed little goose’, uncomfortably chimes with the pressing questions that face a modern Irish audience.