Yellow is a startling twenty-first century adaptation of Perkin Gilman’s 1892 The Yellow Wallpaper, the text which challenged the treatment of women’s mental health in the constrained perception of the 19th century. Yellow is an innovative reimagining of a classic text; tearing away the modern perception of changed attitudes towards female mental health to draw thought-provoking parallels between Gilman’s time and our own.
The Michael Pilch studio is stained in yellow stage light upon entry; a bed, desk and chair are hazily illuminated in a square of gauze. Immediately, Charlotte is staged in front of the gauze as she steps to examine the wallpaper – she insists “it doesn’t make any sense”, establishing the dynamic of her character against the physical sprawling of the paper, which will pull her through its twisting patterns both mentally and physically. Doctor Tyndall fulfils the expectation of the 19th century doctor recurring in the 21st – his voice grating in monotonous questions over alcohol and cigarettes, ignoring the reality of the struggling woman in front of him. The entrance of the doctor after the exchange with Mike and Charlotte inherently invites comparison between them – played by Geddes, the men begin to blur in their separate discourse with Charlotte, establishing the important tension between doctor and husband (paralleling Gilman’s text). Tindel’s piercing line “there is nothing wrong with you, so what are you so afraid of?” drags the 19th century text screaming into the present day – the searching for physical evidence of impairment despite the obvious mental pain. This focus on the physical while frankly ignoring the mental mirrors Gilman’s own treatment by ‘rest cure’, the prescribed physical treatment for mental deterioration. Here, the play’s use of modern dialogue – the doctor wears a white lab-coat while reciting “NHS current guidelines” – questions whether treatment of female mental health has undergone real change.
The simplicity of setting allows audience focus on the main areas of Charlotte’s life – rest and work. She moves between the two furnishings, in her upper room with “barred windows”, scribbling frantically during Mike’s absence. Her interior monologue, echoed through the theatre speakers, is immediately cut-short by his entrance. The direct allusion through character dialogue to the sexual relationship between Charlotte and Mike allows a modern aspect; Mike’s suggestion they “make love” invites laughter as he repeatedly references the doctor’s advice, suggesting sexual activity is an added part of her treatment.
The wallpaper allows intonation in her interior monologue; her voice rises in excitement as the pattern shows her time being filled, future hours of contemplation and her own fulfilment through this activity. The words remind the audience of the true effect of ‘rest cure’; the exultation of inner excitement and the ultimate entrance of insanity. “I am running a marathon in which I can never finish”; the audience watches her write faster as she attempts to stop running against the wallpapers pathways and those of her own mind.
The key strength of the play lies in the wallpaper-woman: while Gilman’s text never specifies her as a physical being or as solely an apparition of the mind, here she is a moving figure behind the yellow gauze. She rises behind the yellow, an embodiment of Charlotte’s mental deterioration as she examines the paper. Haworth’s movement of the arm sways from left to right – Charlotte moves in the chosen direction, a subtle yet stunning allusion to the control the figure exerts over Charlotte both mentally and physically. An aspect of Charlotte’s movement – where she moves to every wall without facing the one that holds the woman – illustrates how the woman exists in every inch of the paper, completely encircling Charlotte.
Through Doctor Tyndall’s distant probing of the real issue, the play alludes to the need for physical evidence of suffering which has continued from Gilman’s century into our own. Mike’s later words “I see you every day”, a testament to the impact of a singular line of dialogue, iterates the need for the visual to explain the mental. The torn remains of Charlotte’s insanity breaking later will be evidence enough.
The climactic scene appears as Charlotte goes into the childbirth – she stands at the foot of her bed as Mike, Tina and the Woman encircle her and scream. Suddenly, Mike and Tina grab her arms and lift her as the Woman pushes her; for a moment Charlotte leaps high above the bed -symbolic of her entrapment – before being immediately thrown back onto the covers, writhing in pain as she delivers her child. Thus her child becomes an embodiment of Mike’s dominance, the experience of her past youth, her treatment and her future experience of the yellow wallpaper as each representational figure pushes her into delivery.
The ending stuns through the use of movement, lighting and sound – Charlotte tears the pages from her journal, her only method of escape from the room, to shreds. The woman comes out from behind the paper and the two circle each other, like beasts of prey in a struggle for survival, as the yellow light flashes on every frantic knock at the door (a drumbeat that adds auditory drama to the final loss of Charlotte’s character). The play is a revelation in the modernising of a phenomenal text; one that drags Gilman’s character from her confinement of the 19th century and allows her to exist again in the 21st.