Modern theatrical reinterpretations of classic works have two key responsibilities. The first is faithfulness to the spirit, as opposed to the particulars, of the source material. The second is for the adaptation to deviate enough from the original to justify its own existence: if you’re not adding anything to the table, don’t bother. By placing Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 story The Yellow Wallpaper in the present day, writer and director Conky Kampfner runs the risk of following other contemporary imaginings into the grim depths of banality. That the piece works so brilliantly is down to her sharp writing and the exceptional talents of the cast.
Yellow was first staged two years ago in Oxford and has been modified here for Fringe consumption. The script is taut, witty, always well-observed. The main character and author-surrogate Charlotte, suffering from post-partum depression, details her despair in a blog, rather than the diary of Gilman’s original. This change is effective, allowing the audience to ponder the contrast between the comfort she receives from strangers on the internet and the behaviour of her well-meaning but controlling husband.
On top of this, modern music is interspersed with the action, nightmarish electronic beats raining down on an unsuspecting crowd and the lyrics of Kendrick Lamar – “I’m mad, but I ain’t stressin’” – perfectly matching events on stage. The result is disorientating and yet immersive, demanding our attention.
Grainne Dromgoole is terrific as Charlotte, giving a rare brilliantly magnetic student performance. She captures the character’s mounting paranoia whilst maintaining her humanity. We see her before her pregnancy, dancing excitedly with a friend when out clubbing, a scene which makes her eventual psychological decline all the more affecting. Dromgoole dominates the claustrophobic performance space, which consists of a mattress on the floor and, behind it, a translucent screen. Her blog posts are communicated through voice recordings which echo around the small studio, invading the headspace of those watching.
There is excellent support from Christopher Connolly, who doubles up as Charlotte’s quietly domineering husband Max and her sanctimonious doctor. The GP is named Dr Weir, in a clever nod to Silas Weir Mitchell, the physician at whom Gilman reportedly directed her story. Connolly keeps his characters distinct in accent and mannerism, but they serve the same purpose, trying to stifle Charlotte by prescribing her routine. When Max undresses her listless form, it is neither intimate nor erotic, only dehumanising.
Natasha McCabe, as the ghostly woman Charlotte sees in the wallpaper, is compelling despite her relative lack of dialogue. She glides, slides and slinks around the stage, balletic and demonic in equal measure. The choreography involving her and Dromgoole is well-executed, the movements of each reflected by the other.
Yellow is an adaptation that will leave you thinking long after its enigmatic ending. It is a meditation on female rights, on mental illness, on writing as a means of expression. Funny, gripping and constantly inventive, it cannot be recommended highly enough.
Yellow is on at ZOO Playground – Playground 2
16:30 until 26th August
Photo credit: Olivia Campbell