Stephanie Mohr’s The Yellow Wallpaper

Coronet Theatre, London
September 26, 2023

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous novella, The Yellow Wallpaper, has a similar theme to Patrick Hamilton’s much later work Gaslight. They both depict an oppressive, controlling husband and a wife constrained by society, actual physical restriction and, to an extent, her own mind.

Written in 1892, the story finds a young mother confined in an attic nursery in a remote country house by her physician husband, as a cure for what he considers “a slight hysterical tendency.” Over time, she becomes obsessed with the room’s yellow wallpaper seeing within it a woman trapped who she must attempt to free.

It is a scenario rich with possibilities but one that director Stephanie Mohr fails to exploit. The setting of the shabby-chic Coronet is perfect for the empty old house in which we are to believe the woman is imprisoned but this is undercut by the mundane set. The audience is also asked to trapse round the back of the theatre and enter via the studio, home to an empty bed dressed by a single cushion and a couple of artefacts in glass cases. It could have been a brilliant scene-setter but felt just pointless. The wallpaper wasn’t even yellow!

Aurélia Thiérrée and Fukiko Takase (on screen) in The Yellow Wallpaper
Photo Hugo Glendinning

What you read in the book is what you get, delivered in a disappointingly flat narrative by Aurélia Thiérrée that felt more like a first reading rather than a finished performance. That’s surprising given how rightly acclaimed as a performer she is. But not only did she struggle to create a nuanced character that alternates between moments of lucidity and hysteria, she didn’t engender an ounce of empathy either.

Shouldn’t the audience have been vacillating? Is her husband a monster? Or is he, in fact, the only sane person in the house. If I were he, I would have left her in the nursery attic and gone off to live a happier life in a new house without her.

Eventually, the “woman behind the wallpaper” is (predictably) embodied by dancer Fukiko Takase. Again it’s disappointing, Takase’s choreography featuring much crawling and writhing, mostly to no good purpose.

The Yellow Wallpaper could have been truly terrifying. It isn’t always clear how sane the protagonist is. Did she start out that way or was she made that way by her circumstance?

Here it was more like being trapped with a whining mosquito. When the ‘woman’ finally erupts out of the torn wallpaper it should be a Lewton Bus jump-scare moment not an irritating distraction creeping out from the wings.

Sound designer Mike Winship creates some predictable sounds that then just get abandoned. The projections just echo what is on the stage with a background of greatly enlarged landscapes and lakesides but why not create images of some of the pareidolia conjured by the pattern in the wallpaper? Imagine being surrounded by projections of the uneven eyes. Ugh!

An hour that promised much but that ultimately, and sadly, added nothing to the original.