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
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The subject matter should be compelling - the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, shocking the art establishment, stealing each other's models and wives, creating friends and enemies, fighting against type. But this play never really achieves the depth it strives for, either as a historical study of some fascinating characters or as an examination of whether art justifies any means. The actors' performances are energetic but very obviously characterised. The dialogue moves between faux-Victorian urchin to modern anachronisms, occasionally funny, but often full of cliche setpieces of the nature of art, or love. Lizzie moves from independent artist to cynical spinster to dead extremely quickly - the second half is definitely badly paced. This play rattles through key scenes and figures with some energy, but never becomes anything more. For a subject matter that encompasses such huge characters and such big questions, it falls short.
This play is too compelling to miss......loved it, apart from the tears running down my face at the end. Emma West and Tom Bateman are electrifying together and apart. I think it worthy of a UK tour, such a great, untold story, beautifully written by Jeremy Green.