Saturday, November 16, 2013

Lizzie steps out on stage

In which our Diva is only a little jealous that it's someone else's Lizzie, and is happy to cheer from the sidelines

It's been a couple months since a Tweet popped up in my timeline that made my heart skip a beat, announcing "Lizzie Siddal, a new play." I don't even recall now who I saw post it first, though it was likely the lovely Stephanie Pina, who has given us both and The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood. But in any case, there it was in all its official glory on the Arcola Theatre website, complete with promo photo of its Lizzie, Emma West, in front of Ophelia with flowers scattered in her hair.

Damn, I couldn't help thinking in those first moments, somebody beat me to it. The irrational impulse of "Hey, that story is mine!" is of course completely ridiculous, but I'm as human and vain as the next creative person, so I'll admit I had to work through it for a minute there. I'll also admit to being greatly relieved when it became clear that, while Emma West was the only cast member announced right away, Jeremy Green has in fact written an entire play with other people in it, quite different territory from my solo piece in (slow-but-progressing) progress.

Even if it hadn't been, of course, in the end excitement about Lizzie's story being explored on stage had to triumph, and I very much wish I could be there. It's funny -- when I first had the idea for Unvarnished, over a decade ago now, when I first started getting mental images of stage pictures that have proven so challenging to build into words, the Pre-Raphaelite circle and their art were still just being rediscovered by the public -- especially here in the U.S. -- after decades out of favor.

These days, any given person with even a passing interest in 19th-century art is much more likely to know who I'm even talking about, let alone the lore of Ophelia's bathtub and that late-night exhumation. The images and stories have made their way back into pop culture, aided by an Internet that bears only the slightest resemblance to the nascent wilderness it was back when I happened upon a review of a one-woman show about Lizzie by Orange, a French multimedia artist who had worked with Cirque du Soleil (and whose somewhat generic pseudonym makes it impossible to find any hits for her on today's Google, if any still exist).  I was just starting my research then -- with Lucinda Hawksley's marvelous biography and so many other resources still in the offing -- and happened on an email address for Orange, resulting in a very kind reply that I wish I could still find, wishing me well in finding "your Elizabeth." I've carried that thought with me ever since.

I've not read or seen Kim Morrissey's Clever as Paint, but I've known it was out there for a while, and apparently there's also one from around 1999 called Dear Dove Divine. Still, it's thrilling to see a new play put Lizzie at the center of her own story, and to see it getting such great coverage, including this BBC News piece and Dinah Roe's interview with playwright Jeremy Green over at her great blog Pre-Raphaelites in the City. There's also this nice audio interview with Emma West from East London Radio.

April Love by Arthur Hughes
All this has also prompted a thoughtful blog post from Kirsty Stonell Walker over at her always-worth-reading The Kissed Mouth, about the ways in which the story is so often reduced to a few tragic episodes. It also puts me in mind, by way of contrast, of a couple conversations I've had recently regarding how little there is to read about Tryphena Foord. My conclusion that "that's what a long and happily married life will get you" might be facetiously phrased, but I stand by its essential accuracy. "Arthur Hughes married his muse and they lived happily ever after" is pretty much all we get.

After reading Kirsty's post, I feel a bit guilty always referring to Lizzie by her nickname, but I can't shake the familiarity. Anyway, guilt hasn't made me write Unvarnished any faster (as I've said before, I'm a busy actor and an unreliable writer), and in fact was pretty much what kept me paralyzed for a long time, for fear of what all these people I like and respect might make of my interpretation of events!

I've mostly managed to shed that, as about 75 handwritten pages of draft can attest, so now all that's left is periodic fretting about whether I'll still be believable on stage by the time the thing is ready to perform. *wry g* I don't have Emma West's uncanny resemblance to begin with (though I have had my share of unprompted comments over the years to the tune of "Hey, have you ever seen that Ophelia painting...?"), and I won't be carded beyond my time forever. (Though a hardware store clerk did ask for my birthdate before ringing up a can of spray paint last week, so I'm probably okay for a little while longer.) It will be what it will be; all I can do is forge on and hope people find it a story worth telling.

In the meantime, if they're in London starting next week (as I so very much wish I could be!) they can take in the story told by Jeremy Green, director Lotte Wakeham (of Matilda the musical fame), and a bright young cast who have been lighting up Twitter with their enthusiasm during rehearsals. It's been fascinating learning about the development of the project, and the collaboration of playwright and actress through a short film about the painting of Ophelia and on to this full-length play. I hope it's a great success, and look forward to reports from those able to attend!

Emma West and Tom Bateman  in rehearsal as Lizzie and Gabriel

Lizzie Siddal runs November 20 - December 21, 2013, at the Arcola Theatre in London. Click here for details and ticket info, and/or follow the production on Twitter.


Amy R. said...

Thanks for sharing this news!

Thanks for also sharing your moments of completely understandable (and understood) struggle with that familiar realization that someone else is dangerously near Jossing... I mean :-) trespassing on a precious idea that is both deeply, profoundly yours and also never any one person's at all.

Unknown said...

"There are only so many stories" is easy to say but sometimes hard to internalize. Thank you for the reminder that I'm at least not alone in that! :-)