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The Yellow Wallpaper at La Mama Courthouse - Review

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by Aridhi Anderson (subscribe)
Aridhi Anderson is a theatremaker, performer and reviewer based in Melbourne. Check out her work at aridhianderson.com.
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Complicated mysteries of wallpapers and the minds of women
The Yellow Wallpaper (directed by Laurence Strangio, performed by Annie Thorold) is a short play based on a 19th century text by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It is a story about a young woman ostensibly afflicted with an undiagnosed mental illness, undermined by her physician husband. He arranges for her to "take rest" in a horrendously wallpapered room that almost drives her out of her mind.

Image credit: Jason Cavanagh
Image credit: Jason Cavanagh


This play is set in a single room, descriptively detailed in the text but minimally furnished (all that the audience sees is a solid wooden table in the centre of the room). It is performed by a single actor in the form of a long monologue spanning a duration of several weeks. The text appears to be mostly in its original form, which has a distinctly nineteenth century feel to it, and is performed with significant lengths of pre-recorded audio narration, especially in the first half. These are challenging artistic choices, and the intention behind them seems solid - to portray the isolation of this woman and her distressed thoughts, which she is painfully captive to, in the absence of other distractions.

These choices, however, have a significant impact on the audience experience, having varying degrees of effectiveness. The audio recordings are somewhat echoey, and the style of narration, while faithful to the time period it seeks to portray, feels monotonous. As a result, the pace of the play, especially in the first half, is draggy. As the play progresses, however, the performer's speech increases from brief moments of synchronizing with the audio to full-fledged speech segments of her own, more and more so as the character settles into the space and finds her motivation. By the last ten minutes of the play, the audience is quite engaged and invested in how this will end. The ending, although quite abstract and open to interpretation, does not disappoint.

The lighting is deceptively simple and creates interesting effects, including shadows and forms on the wall. This is an important feature, albeit slightly underdeveloped, since the yellow wallpaper, described in so much detail, is not actually depicted. I am conflicted about how I feel about this - on the one hand, it makes it that much harder for the show to bring the text to life, but on the other hand, the character often says that she wants to be the only one with access to the wallpaper, so that she can be the one to solve its mystery. Denying the audience access to the wallpaper forces us to focus on solving a different mystery - the mystery of the character's mind. This is a substantial endeavour, especially as the strong feminist themes of the text demand thoughtful reflection about what a woman goes through when she feels trapped, suffocated, not listened to, not believed.

The Yellow Wallpaper is a powerful text on its own, one that is not significantly elevated by this production. But it is a thought provoking piece, sufficiently engaging by the end of the second half, and gives the audience some deep things to ponder upon.
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Why? A show based on a powerful feminist text
When: 6 - 17 March 2019
Phone: 03 9347 6948
Where: La Mama Courthouse, 349 Drummond St, Carlton
Cost: $20-$30
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