Regularly and repeatedly claimed by feminist critics, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s nineteenth-century story The Yellow Wallpaper is not a text that begs to be updated. Synonymous with the oppressive patriarchy of its time, which condemned women such as the story’s narrator to a diagnosis of “hysteria”, the piece holds a central place within feminist literary histories – a place that might itself be an intriguing site for contemporary investigation. Instead, this new version from Lyndsey Turner and Katie Mitchell drags Gilman’s story into the present day, making explicit the then unrecognised post-natal depression that seems to be hinted at by the narrative. It’s both a fascinating and a frustrating move.
Transplanting Gilman’s troubled, restless narrator from a nineteenth-century American summer house to the German countryside of the present day, this dramatic reimagining very deliberately refracts the tale through later psychological lenses, rendering it into a modern study of depression. The originally nameless protagonist, now identified as Anna, is listless in the house her husband has brought them to for her recuperation, often in bed during the day, yet plagued at night by a conviction that something – or someone – is moving behind the wallpaper.
Mitchell’s approach to this story is a meticulously deconstructed one, breaking down her intricate, technically dazzling production into its individual components. The Schaubühne’s wide stage is dissected into three segments, above which a large, attention-stealing screen hosts projections of film being captured live by an intrusive crew of camera operators. Two of these divided sections of the performance space are given over to precisely detailed, almost identical renderings of the room in which the protagonist of the piece is confined, while the third is a closed-in box fronted by a large window, in which foley artist Cathlen Gawlich visibly creates the sounds that ripple through the production – footsteps, scraping, knocks at the door. Meanwhile a similar, smaller space encloses actress Ursina Lardi, a lone, starkly lit figure speaking into a microphone.
Through these mechanisms, the production depicts protagonist Anna’s anguished descent into madness in close-up, punishingly claustrophobic detail. From the moment she arrives at this room in a remote country house – and even before her entrance – every element of the place is heightened. The disturbingly enhanced sound effects, produced before our eyes, assault the ears, while the vivid wallpaper itself takes on a strangely disquieting pallor under Jack Knowles’ evocative lighting. As a psychological device, Mitchell’s technique is unnervingly effective. Not only does this approach give the audience startlingly intimate access to Anna’s own crisis; every dismantled element of the production repeats the feeling of being trapped, from the tightly enclosed space in which Lardi voices Anna’s thoughts, to the close, intruding presence of cameras, to the screens that periodically slide down to cut off sections of the stage.
In its technical allusions to thriller and noir, genres with which the piece thematically shares a number of features – the creepy house, the scent of mystery, the escalating urgency – the overwhelming presence of film amplifies this sense of unease. Throughout the production’s most disturbing sequence, as Anna tears frantically at the wallpaper, a camera pressed close while the intensified sound of scratching floods the auditorium, we might be trapped inside a psychological horror movie. Yet perhaps there is more to this technique than pure atmosphere. In addition to the live film being recorded and projected throughout, bookending the production are two pre-recorded film segments, self-consciously styled as home videos. This juxtaposition makes more visible the concern with representation that persists throughout, implicitly asking how we perceive ourselves and how we choose to present ourselves to others, particularly in the context of a mediatised modern culture. Is this not, like Gilman’s original narrator and perhaps even Gilman herself, a woman struggling with how she is seen in the world?
The question of gender, however, is oddly muted, as is the feminist genealogy that has wrapped itself around Gilman’s text. As a non-German speaker with no access to the script, it’s impossible to muse on any insights that Turner’s textual reworking might offer, but the half-informed eye – when not darting between the multiple facets of Mitchell’s intriguing staging – catches a sense of something missing. Beneath the technical accomplishment and the queasy shiver of unease, there is the nagging suspicion of a certain hollowness. Disturbingly, devastatingly acute as the psychological portrait might be, its significance remains elusive.