Plays can be drawn from an endless amount of sources . The narrative can be inspired by a building , one phrase , a glance or, in the case of the play ‘Lizzie Siddal ‘, a woman in a painting by a revered artist. In this original production written by Jeremy Green, John Everett Millais’ painting of Ophelia and the delicate red-headed beauty floating in the pond is at the heart of this story.
Lizzie Siddal is played by Emma West who bears a striking and uncanny resemblance to Siddal. As you watch her on stage, it’s as if she you can envision her picking herself up from the pond while her clothes are dripping wet and stepping right out of the frame onto the stage. The play is centered around the love that blossoms between the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Tom Bateman) and Lizzie. We watch as she goes from being his muse to his cohort . She reads, paints , and she writes which as the play continues to reiterate makes her quite the anomaly for a 19th century woman.
Set Designer David Woodhead takes hints of the wood and the nature you see in the Millais’ infamous painting to create his set. There are paints , brushes and easels sprawled out frantically at the back of the stage . It makes for the back drop for the various scene changes from the artist William Holman Hunt’s home played by Simon Darwen to Rossetti ‘s flat .
The frenetic nature with which those paint materials are spread out on the set matched the frantic almost hyperactive nature of Bateman’s performance as Rosettti. There were many moments where I wanted him to stay stiller but as John Ruskin played by Daniel Crossley , says he “skips about like Puck”. Is he referring to the Bard’s “merry wanderer of the night” from a “Midsummer Night’s Dream”? If so, maybe this was the reason for the incessant movement on Bateman’s part.
On the other hand, West plays Lizzie in the more calm and ladylike way that one would expect from the raccounts of Rossetti who said she “behaved like a real lady “. She plays her a bit naive but also as a woman who burns with curiosity and the desire to enter the artist ‘s world. She surprised me as I thought she might be played brasher but instead there is an underlying confidence which she exudes till she has to confront darker times towards the end. West has quite a task to take on during the play and her eventual demise as this passionate woman is one she plays with heart and vigour . There is a wonderful moment where she literally stops Rossetti in his tracks to recite a poem and it created a calm intensity between the couple which translated wonderfully on stage.
Another standout performance came from Daniel Crossley who plays John Ruskin, the infamous art critic and patron of the era, as well as Charles Howell and Young Mitchell. He moves from one to the other giving each one a distinct characterization which I found extremely exciting to watch on stage. I also enjoyed James Northcote’s Millais with his boisterous and a bit arrogant interpretation of a man who, according to some, was the “greatest painter of the Pre-Raphaelite group”.
It is a passionate story of love and what it meant to be an artist in the Victorian era. There are some really strong performances and its female protagonist is intriguing to ponder over as we loosen up our tight corsets to breathe a bit and ruminate over whether this was truly one of the great and underrated female intellectuals of the 19th century. Well, I have certainly been inspired.
Lizzie Siddal is on at the Arcola until the 21st of December. Box Office – http://www.arcolatheatre.com/production/arcola/lizzie-siddal