Before willowy supermodels like Lily Cole and Kate Moss there was Victorian superstar Elizabeth Siddal. Muse to artists the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – whose shenanigans gave the YBAs a run for their money – she was immortalised in John Everett Millais’s ‘Ophelia’.
Siddal – like Cole – was a brain as well as a beauty; a model who read Greek and became an artist. Jeremy Green’s play does a great service in putting her little known story on stage. But his politics are muddled throughout and instead of interrogating the patriarchal barriers Siddal fought against, he places her in the reductive role of doomed lover.
Green begins with her first encounter with paramour, the infamous Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti (a suitably flamboyant Tom Bateman). We see Rossetti’s pursuit of Siddal, his tutelage of her, sponsorship, abandonment and finally marriage.
It is true that much of Siddal’s life was tied up with Rossetti but she did much more than that. Green hints at fascinating experiences – her refusal to wear a corset and crinoline, the suffocating patronage of critic John Ruskin. But the romance with Rossetti is prioritised to the expense of everything else.
Still it’s pleasant to watch. Against David Woodhead's pretty art studio set, director Lotte Wakeham’s lightness of touch keeps this wordy play moving. Emma West’s performance as Siddal is compelling, her elegance and stillness managing to convey what made this woman extraordinary.
By Honour Bayes