A single hand ghosts beneath the wallpaper. It is a lurid, offensive yellow, and full of secrets known only by Alice. Due to a sudden spell of post-natal depression, she is prescribed a period of rest at her husbands inherited estate in the countryside. It is in poor condition. Nails are said to be sticking from the floorboards, and the dust interminable, with paper peeling from the walls – gnarled and marked from lack of care. The deformities within the yellow become a huge source of anxiety for Alice. She cannot bear to be there, but cannot bear to leave. The room is hers, and for her alone.
Dressed in a lilac frock with frills at the sleeves, Alice (played by Gemma Yates-Round), confides in her audience. With a knowing smile and friendly wit, she giggles as her cheeks burn for the handsome doctor (Charles Warner), statuesque as he is. There is an awkwardness about the pair, who at times are surrounded by an empty silence that begins to gape as the piece endures. It is uncomfortable, watching her doctor become her husband John, who then blurs into Nancy, their housekeeper. All three insist that Alice relax, and encourage abstinence from any fanciful activities such as reading or writing, should they magnify her nervous disposition.
However, Alice resists their demands and indulges in writing whenever she is left alone. Norse mythology crowds her waking and sleeping moments – imagery that is soon confiscated from her collection of poetry. She has been working on a story for her daughter Violet, so that she may have something for her when she is deemed stable enough to hold her again. Books become stepping stones into one of her fantasies – a tale of a man made of earth and ice. While entertaining, moments like these detract from the terrifying symbolism that can be found in the original short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Adapted by Ruby Lawrence, The Yellow Wallpaper is bursting with content, and does well to cover so many degrees of storytelling in such a limited time. The set is handsome and well-crafted – a single room, manned by a white door, with a happy chaise longue, and finished with a cream floor and matching skirting boards. A strange sound seems to linger also – a humming or whispering of a filament trapped inside a glass bulb. This image snags at Alice as she flits about the space – arms flapping like a caged bird, feet pounding at the floorboards with a sickening roar. The intensity of her gait becomes painful to watch, particularly when she drops to her knees, scrabbling at the last rays of sunlight, waiting for darkness to come.
At times, the force of Alice’s violent thoughts become astonishingly real. The continual scratching of her fingertips against plaster is repellent, and this adds to her fevered need to rip it all down, thus freeing the wizened creature that she sees on the other side. Still, changes in lighting can feel overcooked, especially to mark Warner’s changing of character. It can have real gravity at times, as well as some humour, but it needs refinement in order to fully articulate the horrors of the narrative. Ultimately, Alice’s lived experience merits more attention, as it is the exposition which gives the performance a somewhat laboured quality.
Exclusively for AYT Readers: Get £10 Tickets for The Yellow Wallpaper at Omnibus Theatre by clicking here.
The Yellow Wallpaper is playing at the Clapham Omnibus until June 24
Photo: Lidia Crisafulli