Sunday, 1 December 2013

Lizzie Siddal : Her Play

It’s bad enough when dramatisations cast actors in fictional roles who look completely different from one’s mental conception of the character, but  ‘true story’ dramas can have the complication of real life likenesses working against audiences’ visual knowledge – a fact especially true of the main players in the popular Pre-Raphaelite sitcom, which sometimes seems endlessly rehearsed.  So heartfelt compliments to the casting director and cast of the new play at the Arcola Theatre, for their vivification of the chief characters, who vividly resemble the originals and convincingly portray them.  Although Rossetti is rather taller than in life, and Annie Miller too petite, Holman Hunt, John Ruskin (with a smug, half-fixed smile) and jaunty, confident John Millais are acutely rendered and all convey a highly plausible animation, while Emma West the actor playing Lizzie Siddal, with the pearlescent skin that often goes with copper hair,  could be her double.

The playwright Jeremy Green has taken on board recent scholarship on Siddal’s artistic aspirations to give her an active role in the PRB circle.  He resisted the temptation that often makes Rossetti’s charismatic personality dominate the drama, and remarkably has drawn Gabriel as the sexually reluctant partner in the relationship (as I have always thought) albeit without quite explaining this.  The first half of the evening is high-spirited and upbeat, successfully conveying the PRBs’ youthful optimism – I particularly liked how each young man declared himself a genius – and deftly navigates the shoals of period misrepresentation.   I should confess to an offstage ‘appearance’ as a Mrs Marsh, whose grizzling twins have required nearly all the shopkeeper’s supply of laudanum, but an irritating anachronism to show it being glugged directly from the bottle.  
The true pitfall of this type of drama is the perceived need to stick to historical fact, which tends to fill the scenes with narrative, unneeded by those who don’t know the story and annoying to those who do. In Siddal’s case the great obstacle is her now too-familiar death from an overdose while suffering from post-natal depression – a truly sad and pathetic end to her young life, but one that does not contain high-tension drama.   I wished Jeremy Green had departed more vigorously from historical fact, not perhaps to ignore her death but maybe show it differently, less inevitably, less pathetically.  Or to leave the audience guessing as to whether or how far Gabriel was responsible for that fatal dose – a subject on which opinion can still be forceful.

So, a somewhat too faithful re-telling that leaves scope for further episodes in the romance.

1 comment:

  1. I saw the play last weekend. I thought it was excellent and the acting was superb especially the portrayal of Lizzie herself. I would agree with your comments about the way Lizzie's depression and death was shown. Having her wandering around with the dead baby's clothes was a bit too pathetic really. My understanding is that Lizzie, Gabriel and Swinburne dined together on the night she died. That would have been more interesting than the way the play showed it. My understanding is that Lizzie's possible suicide was more to do with Rossetti's continued infidelity than the loss of the baby. But thank you for a very interesting blog.