Below Zelda Fitzgerald’s high school graduation photo are inscribed the words, “Why should all life be work, when we all can borrow. Let’s think only of today, and not worry about tomorrow.” These words perfectly encapsulate the irrepressible sense of youth that embodies this 1920s icon, the woman deemed by her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald as “the original American flapper.” And yet in Kelly Burke’s wonderful one woman play, we are invited to witness the painful tomorrow that Zelda so daringly dismisses. This is not the Zelda that lives in the moment, but the Zelda that lingers and remembers bitterly, long after the moment has passed.
We find her sitting on a bed in a tiny room, avidly writing and surrounded by piles of paper. The endless crumpled pages of illegible scrawl seem to sum up her deteriorating mental state – like her memories, these pages have become muddled and stamped upon. Zelda Fitzgerald is gravely ill, haunted by a series of breakdowns and bitterness that has turned her life from the height of glamour to a cycle of self destruction.
Much of Zelda takes the form of extracts from her diary and from the semi-autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz, she wrote whilst trapped in the Phipps Clinic – the very room depicted upon the stage. The flipping back and forth between the first and third person works wonderfully as a metaphor for the schizophrenic episodes Zelda experiences, as well as blurring the sense of reality; this seems fitting for a woman whose life was so drenched in storytelling. Save Me the Waltz reflects upon the Fitzgeralds’ marriage through a character she has named Alabama, after her home state. When the novel was published, F. Scott Fitzgerald – who used much of Zelda’s own writing as his own – was incensed, viewing this time as one only he could reflect upon. Slamming her as a “third rate writer,” he orchestrated a meeting with Zelda’s doctors that ensured she was banned from any more writing. We see her complete desolation as the woman whose diary extracts contributed to some of the bestselling books of the 20th century tells us of the battle to simply secure an instrument to write with.
The great cracks and gashes in the walls of Zelda’s tiny room become symbolic not only of her worsening mental state but of the damage inflicted as a prisoner attempts to break down the walls enclosing her. Burke perfectly embodies the sense of oppression that permeates the play, elegantly sweeping around the room like a butterfly trapped in a glass. Something cries out to be released in her tight, contorted movements that even her attempts to dance cannot set free, as she beats out repetitive motions and words. And yet for all this she is incredibly likeable, disarming us all with a shot of wit and a knowing smile, showing echoes of the Zelda who everyone wanted to party with. Although it struggles with a sense of progression, Zelda is a beautifully told, poignant piece, telling of a woman caught in a society that was happy to marvel at her escapades without truly listening to her.
Zelda is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 4 October. For more information and tickets, see the Trafalgar Studios website.