Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Yellow Wallpaper
When that door-slam reverberated around Europe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was in her late teens in Connecticut. A dozen years later, Gilman -- by then a journalist and feminist -- wrote the Edgar Allan Poe version of Nora’s story: The Yellow Wallpaper. More than a century later, she is still best remembered for this Gothic little tale, barely 6000 words long.
It’s a first-person narration by a nervous and depressed new mother who is effectively locked up in a huge room at the top of a colonial mansion. Against her physician husband’s express orders, she has taken to writing down her increasingly agitated thoughts.
The woman blithely reasons that the big, airy room must have been a nursery once, then a playroom and gymnasium, “for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls.”
And then there’s the wallpaper... “The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.”
She becomes obsessed with its malignant, shifting patterns, eventually ‘seeing’ a wraith-like woman imprisoned behind it.
Another woman in another attic...
Anita Hegh in The Yellow Wallpaper
Rather than present The Yellow Wallpaper as a feminist ghost story or a tale of post-natal ‘hysteria’ in the late 19th century, director Peter Evans and actor Anita Hegh subtly emphasise the Bergman Persona elements of the story in which “imaginative power” and the “habit of story-making” are equated to “nervous weakness” and “sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies.”
It’s not entirely clear, in Gilman’s story, if the narrator’s sickness comes from her imaginative power or from its thwarting.
Husband-and-wife team Evans and Hegh call their performance of the short-story (in its entirety) “an investigation” for the stage. “We really wanted the feeling in the production that there is an actress who is taking on a role and that she is a little bit unstable, like the character in her story,” Hegh said.
“So she starts in a rehearsal skirt, her idea of what a 19th century dress would be. Then, as the play progresses she looks more and more the part... so that, by the end, you don’t see the actress as separate from the character.”
Best known for her work on Stingers -- or “Stinkers” as she affectionately calls it -- Hegh is the actor you call when you need a mad woman with a human face. Think of Judith hacking the head off Holofernes in Caravaggio’s painting: the girl next door with a machete in hand and the “contagion of sin” in her eye. And Hegh will go a long way to play it.
Between her TV gigs “to pay the bills,” Hegh has played Phaedra in Brisbane, and the child-murdering fourteen year-old in the ‘Medea Redux’ section of Neil LaBute’s three-part play Bash in Sydney.
“I’m not in the league of the Rachel Griffithses and the Cate Blanchetts... and the great roles just get snaffled up. So, you have to travel far, far, to play them, which I’m more than happy to do! You have to take the opportunities when they come along.”The NIDA graduate from the “north side” of Sydney came to Melbourne to do Stingers, some years ago, “and ended up loving it.” Melbourne, that is, not Stingers so much.
Acting, Hegh explains, was never about film and television for her. “My aspirations were always about theatre.”
Hegh seems like a born clown: full of banter, quick to laugh and mess around. But the extrovert was buried deep within, when she was a teen. She was drawn to acting as a way of speaking a “full sentence without umming and ahhing.”
“I was really shy,” she explains. “I come from a dark, Eastern European family of complete introverts.”
Watching actors on stage, as a teen, Hegh became fascinated with their ability “to hide”, and attracted to the stage as a means of expressing her extroverted alter-ego.
Like the actress she plays in the Yellow Wallpaper, Hegh herself has merged with the role she has chosen to play. “That was the appeal of acting. It goes down quite deep, I think. It becomes part of your persona.”
Stage acting, she says, is a hit. “It’s an adrenaline rush. There’s some chemical that’s released. The same thing for some people as a cigarette or a drink or whatever else they do! A bit of gambling or phone sex! A Lindt chocolate ball! You get a taste of that, and you go gna-gna-gna-gna-gna... I need a fix.”
The Yellow Wallpaper opens tonight at the Malthouse in Melbourne.
Cross-posted at Sarsaparilla.