Monday, 25 November 2013

Theatre review: Lizzie Siddal

The Pre-Raphaelite equivalent of a supermodel, Elizabeth Siddal modeled for John Everett Millais' Ophelia, still the most popular painting at Tate Britain, and became muse to many artists of the Victorian movement. Jeremy Green's Lizzie Siddal looks at the life beyond the image, when Lizzie moved behind the canvas and attempted to become an artist in her own right. We first meet Lizzie (Emma West) posing for William Holman Hunt (a shamelessly scene-stealing Simon Darwen) and she later gets poached by Millais (James Northcote) for her most famous role, which almost proves fatal when the water goes cold and she contracts pneumonia. But her most enduring relationship, and one that could prove more destructive than any number of cold baths, will be with the artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Rossetti (Tom Bateman) and Lizzie fall in love, and he decides to teach her to paint, an attempt that meets with derision from Hunt but has support from the most influential critic of the age, John Ruskin (Daniel Crossley.) But despite everyone's expectations, including Ruskin's and Lizzie's herself, Rossetti makes no moves to propose marriage, and even though her painting career gives her some semblance of independence, her future doesn't look too rosy as a Victorian spinster.


Lotte Wakeham's production is at times very funny, the first act especially exploiting the artistic temperaments on display with pronouncements that border on the surreal but, given the personalities involved, are probably entirely accurate. ("He can't afford a wedding right now. He's just bought two peacocks.") Darwen's announcement that he's off to Palestine to paint a picture that'll put the rest of the century's art in the shade is gloriously done. Darwen, Northcote and Bateman nicely differentiate between the three artists, and Rossetti is the best performance I've seen Bateman give. Admittedly this is praise so faint it's transparent, but progress is progress.


Crossley is an enjoyable Ruskin, a humanity coming through a cheeky arrogance that takes pleasure in his status as the last word in art criticism; he also provides a number of well-defined smaller roles. But obviously Lizzie Siddal herself is the character who has to carry the play, and West has a wonderfully expressive face that not only makes her an apt choice as a sought-after model but also means she can take us from the twinkle-eyed seamstress with an unexpected sophistication, through to the tragic figure of her later years.


Lizzie Siddal's tragedy isn't one of unrequited love but of love once requited then lost - and Lissie herself is the last to know. It's given an energetic and entertaining production at the Arcola that has fun with the eccentricities of a group of people believing themselves on a mission to transform the art world, but leaves room to explore the emotional impact left in its wake.

Lizzie Siddal by Jeremy Green is booking until the 21st of December at Arcola Studio 1.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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