Review: ‘Yellow’ – “sensitive and complex”

Zad El Bacha is highly impressed with 'Yellow', an adaptation of Charlotte Perkin Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper', at the Pilch

Credit: SquidInk Theatre (Facebook)

The opening scene of Yellow immediately characterises the protagonists: Charlotte is a bubbly blonde, perhaps a bit too bubbly, full of teasing humour. She’s teasing her husband for putting on a working class accent to talk to a cab driver. He denies the accusations:  he’s a good man! With a good social conscience! He knows all about classism and cultural appropriation! Then he gives in, alright, yes, he did it. His admission does not hold any actual guilt in it, any acknowledgement of the damage his actions could cause. It’s a goofy, well-meaning error from a man who is clearly a good guy. His wife takes it the same way and hugs him.

At this point of the play, the characters seem nothing but annoying. But very soon, the traits they display in this scene are filled with wistfulness and pain. As the play goes on, we discover that Charlotte is held hostage by her husband and an evil doctor so that she may “recover” (from what?) and spend time with her newborn baby. She is slowly isolated from everything, forbidden even from reading books. Writing, which used to be her career, becomes her little secret. The bubbliness we see in the first scene is curbed, until it disappears completely.

The play reveals the violence in the husband’s well-meaning, caring demeanour. In one particularly moving scene, he ignores her protests as he further isolates her from all that she loves, gaslights her when she expresses her feelings about it, and then tenderly kisses her on the head. He is also portrayed as a good and caring father (unlike her, the selfish mother), and the hypocrisy of his act is revealed.

For example, he tells her off for leaving the baby alone while she went to the library, despite having been away for a conference for an entire week. He says, horrified of her and conscious of his own goodness: “I had to rock her tiny little body until she fell asleep!” As if that was a shocking, unexpected thing for him to do.

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The character development is made through frequent flashbacks, which also have all the poignancy of a time of freedom which is so different from the present. I was impressed by the smoothness and unity of these flashbacks. Non-linear narration is hard to pull of in a play without falling into an excessive experimentalism, but Yellow managed it seamlessly.

This was partly due to the simple set, which remained always the same as the scenes changes, keeping the viewer grounded in the reality of an isolated room. A particularly harrowing, and technically well-done, flashback was one where the protagonist is in a club with her best friend, who is planning to get herself a post-breakup goldfish. The scene perfectly captures the moments of drunken female friendships that we all know from nights out, and the contrast between the carefree, silly tone of the scene and the rest of the play is truly heartbreaking.

The set is surrounded by a net, illuminated in a faint yellow. It slightly clouds the vision of the play, and I expected it to fall down at any moment. It never did. This made perfect sense with the progression of the story, as Charlotte’s truth is clouded more and more, and she is always more entrapped in the little box that is her room. Its transparency allowed for an artful rendering of “the woman behind the wallpaper”, who was simply standing behind the the screen. Unfortunately, the technical limitations of the Pilch’s lighting system meant she couldn’t move much without getting out of the light, but the artful directing turned that into a solemn, eerie stillness.

The only criticism I could level against this play is the exceptional flatness of the evil doctor. However, given the shortness of the play, and the complexity of the themes it was handling, this cannot be but a passing note. Overall, a sensitive and complex portrayal of the ways ideas of motherhood are used with a benevolent facade to violently police a woman’s life.

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