Lizzie Siddal

The eponymous Lizzie Siddal was a seamstress by trade, but in her spare time she used to pose as a model for many Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Hunt, Rossetti and Millais. With her distinctive flaming red hair, Lizzie was a much sought-after muse, and was perhaps most famously captured in Millais’s iconic painting Ophelia. Jeremy Green’s play, Lizzie Siddal,explores the girl behind the pictures and her burning desire to be immortalised on canvas.

The play is set in 1849, a time when models were paid to sit completely still in absolute silence. Therefore William Holman Hunt (Simon Darwen) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Tom Bateman) are understandably quite taken aback when Lizzie (Emma West) breaks this norm, pointing out that Rossetti has falsely claimed that a piece of Keats’s poetry as his own. Impressed by her unexpected eloquence and knowledge of poetry, Rossetti is instantly captivated by Lizzie and asks if she would be willing to sit for him. Upon agreeing, the first seed of the tempestuous love story that forms the beating heart of the play is sown.

The power dynamic between an artist and his muse is one of the central themes explored in this piece. Not content with merely being an object which Rossetti captures on paper, Lizzie attempts to address this power balance by asking the artist to teach her how to paint. However, the gender inequality prevalent at the time meant that Lizzie struggles to be recognised and celebrated as an artist in a male-dominated industry.

This production is a world première, and representing the life of Lizzie Siddal and her contemporaries makes for an interesting premise. Much of the humour in Green’s script comes from the references to Ruskin, Rossetti, Millais and Hunt’s wider canon of work, so in many ways it feels like a detailed knowledge of the period is a pre-requisite in order to fully understand the play. A couple of nods to these wider references would have been fine, but the frequency with which they occur renders many moments inaccessible. Consequently I often felt like I was being forced to listen to a plethora of inside jokes that were difficult to follow.

West’s portrayal of Lizzie’s demise from wide-eyed innocent to a tragic heroine, desperate for Rossetti to marry her, is an accomplished and engaging performance. Another noteworthy performance is that of Jayne Wisener as the brazen cockney Annie Miller. Wisener has a true flair for comedy and her character provides the perfect foil for the refined Lizzie. Structurally, however, I found that the overall pace of the piece drags in parts, due to lengthy scenes with drawn out dialogue. Personally, I think the natural ending of the play is after Lizzie’s distressed final monologue; the next comedic fifteen minutes that follow feel like they are tacked on unnecessarily.

However, Lizzie Siddal led a very interesting life, and this production is worth seeing if just to learn more about this tragic Victorian heroine.

Lizzie Siddal is being performed at the Arcola Theatre until 21 December. For more information and tickets please visit the Arcola Theatre website.