Perpetua Collective presentsThe Yellow Wall-paper by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman. Adapted by Poppy Johnson.

  • Tim Lucas.

The text of ‘The Yellow Wall-paper’ is short but dense, and any adaptation of it must necessarily choose which aspect or aspects to focus on. Being narrated entirely by ‘the Woman’, every ounce of conversation is relayed second-hand, and thus we might conclude that the entire text is open to interpretation as it is open to narrative bias. Perpetua Collective, under the direction of Poppy Johnson, chose to focus on possible arsenic poisoning causing the Woman’s distress and confusion.

The parts of the script that were lifted from the text itself were delivered with great conviction by Ellie Belk, who drew the audience in from the outset. Unafraid to hold sustained eye contact with each audience member, the unnerving element of the story was brought to the fore. Performing some kind of dramatic gymnastics, Belk was able to jump from excitable to distressed to calm to worried with great fluidity, making us question what the character really was feeling and how she was dealing with being in the room of ‘The Yellow Wall-paper’. At no point was the character portrayed to be unlikeable, which is a credit to Belk’s tone, delivery and overall persona.

Her husband, John — played by Joshua Jones — attempts to calm her or distract her using various methods. John was displayed as a cold man, certainly more callous than he might appear in the text (even through a second-hand account), but the effect created was intriguing. First, it created enormous empathy for ‘the Woman’. Because the audience does not feel warmth towards John, the natural outlet for an ally is the other character. Secondly, it made the ending more striking (changed in this, perhaps to tie in with the arsenic poisoning angle, to show ‘the Woman’ collapsing and John weeping over her), since John’s own character is unravelled to become weaker and more emotional than he was previously shown to be. It’s not easy to play an accidental villain, but Jones danced the line between concerned husband and stubborn physician with great aplomb.

Such affection for Belk’s ‘Woman’ is strengthened by Ashley Bernstone’s depiction of Jerry (a change from the text’s Jennie), who provides a gentle and comforting role in the adaptation. The audience is left to ponder what approach they would take in such circumstances. Bernstone played the part very well, allowing the softer man to contrast with John. Plus, it appears Bernstone has proven to be an expert at catching very small keys travelling towards him in dimmed light.

The question of how to involve the audience was answered from the outset. The seats were arranged as two sides of a square, with the set as the other two sides, adorned with the garish yellow wall-paper. On the backs of each chair were scraps of the same wallpaper, and the lighting of the room was entirely yellow, effectively making the audience either part of the wall-paper or sitting just behind it — a detail used to great effect when Belk delivered the line, ‘Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind,’ while staring at each audience member slowly and deliberately. Lighting was used to create the silhouette of the woman in the paper, also played by Bernstone (who, it appears, has proven to be an expert at curtsying), and when the paper was torn down to reveal her, the intertwining of the two women was powerfully delivered, with the climax of John’s discovery and despair ending the play with a palpable poignance.

If a central tenet of theatre is to make things real, then Perpetua Collective did a stellar job.

The Yellow wall-paper was performed on Friday 22nd and Saturday 23rd July 2022 at Staffordshire University.