Edinburgh Fringe 2009
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s upsetting little story comes from the gothic tradition, but instead of Shelley’s man-made creature, or the vampires of Stoker, we have an altogether more human, suffocating and realistic monster. And it might be the one we share our lives with.
When we first see the character of Charlotte (a very impressive Helen Foster), she’s smiling broadly, beautiful and vibrant – and very positive: she uses terms like delicious and clever, but she also worries that the house she’s moving into might be ‘lonely’ or ‘broken’. All four terms we will associate with Charlotte herself before the hour is out.
This is, at it’s dark heart, a desolate piece – we watch this proud and dynamic woman as she is shackled, bound and crushed under the weight of expectation – expectation of her time, her place, and crucially, her gender. Her dialogue is uncomfortably punctuated by pauses loaded with guilt – a cot stands accusingly in the corner of her room, she mentions that she has not been fulfilling her duties ‘in any way’ – and then lapses into silence to allow us to contemplate what those duties are.
There is a somewhat curious moment when we’re given a cavalcade of special effects – lights and sound creating a monstrous satire of the happy Victorian portrait – it’s a nice idea, but the performances and dialogue are strong enough that we can do without such gimmicks.
Speaking of gimmicks, the real challenge in a piece like this is to translate the character’s struggle against madness without descending into the type of wide-eyed histrionics that often accompany this sort of story. Thankfully, when the moments of hysteria arrive, they are well earned and believable – as Charlotte strives to discover herself, her hair is let down, she bares her arms, she is more physical, and, yes, more sexualised. As she becomes to our eyes more modern, she is, with grim inevitability, to her family ever more insane. Through this compassionate, vital, and eloquent woman, we’re forced to conclude that her depression and madness is forced upon her for no better reason that her gender: as her husband John remarks’ ‘think pleasant thoughts .. if you must think at all’. However, the script is clever enough not to let us off the hook so easily as to dismiss this as an angry woman feminist diatribe – for all his faults and misguided actions, we’re required to recognise that Charlotte’s husband genuinely does care for her welfare.
In the end, though, Charlotte’s prison might be too strong. There’s a lovely moment when she looks out to us, pushing her hand up against the invisible fourth wall. In the audience, we’re willing for her to push harder, to escape, to join us in the real world. But by now, she’s lost in her tiny world, and entire universe compressed, crushed and boxed into a tiny, violently yellow room.
A special word about the yellow wallpaper itself – while the backdrop itself would have benefited from being larger, the design is a pleasing migraine of foul and changing yellows, a prison for ‘a great many women’, women, we realise, that are amongst our own families’ long forgotten secrets.
‘It’s a secret’, one character tells another. As this is Ethereal Pants’ first time at Edinburgh, one assumes that they themselves are a secret on the Fringe. On the strength of this very assured debut, that shouldn’t be the case for too long.