Child birth, for many centuries, has been a taboo subject in many human cultures, including Western Europe. Pregnant people in the medieval and early modern periods were expected to spend months away from the rest of society with the custom of ‘lying-in’, where they could only be attended by other women. Child birth and motherhood have been shaped and re-shaped by the often reductive structures of patriarchy, a way of controlling women in a period when they are at their most vulnerable. Yet, even the counter-narrative that has arisen from recent shows like One Born Every Minute and Yorkshire Midwives paints a wholly positive and uplifting picture of the process of bringing new human life into the world. It is, in many respects, a polarising issue, with often very little room for nuance. As I have watched many of my peers take their first steps into pregnancy and parenthood, I have become increasingly aware of the waves of toxic positivity that pervade discussions of motherhood and having babies. The animosity exhibited by some towards how others choose to give birth and raise their children is truly shocking, and increasingly it plays into the dehumanising trope of the sainted mother figure. A mother must be perfect; if she is anything less – i.e. if she exhibits any fallible human qualities – she is a monster. There is an apparent lack of compassion and empathy for mothers just at a time when they need it most, because child birth is, for many, an incredibly traumatic experience. The changes that a person’s body goes through in order to grow and then give birth to a baby are huge and completely out of the conscious control of the person going through it. So when some of those changes go wrong, it can be truly devastating. Dumb Blonde Theatre’s production of The Yellow Wallpaper explores this devastation with frightening effect.
Adapted from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story, The Yellow Wallpaper follows a young woman, I (played by Tiffany Rhodes), in the aftermath of the difficult birth of her son, Harry. Having recently moved to a large, old house in the country, I has been confined to a single room in order to recuperate from the birth and to build her maternal bond with her newborn child. Attended by her doctor husband, John (played by Russell Eccleston), child nanny, Mary, and John’s overbearing sister, Jennie (both played by Ebony Cassie), we watch as I’s frayed psyche deteriorates as she is consumed by her growing psychosis and obsession with the strange, patterned yellow wallpaper that covers the room of her confinement.
This is a beautifully managed and perfectly disturbing adaptation of Perkins Gilman’s work. Clearly influence by horror tropes – which are enhanced by Harry Miller’s masterful sound design – this is a show explicitly about postpartum psychosis. This somewhat lesser known mental health condition is very rarely discussed in the mainstream, and I myself had only heard of it after Adele spoke of her friend’s experience of the condition in 2018. Psychosis, like many mental illnesses, is generally misunderstood and rarely discussed, and when combined with the cultural weighted role of the mother, it is a truly terrifying condition. But what writer and director Emily Malloy does with this play is use the narrative’s horror genre to explore this taboo illness. For me, that is what good horror is – a vehicle in which to explore these difficult subjects that are more earthly in their terror than supernatural or demonic. Tiffany Rhodes’ achingly fragile and fevered performance as I is truly incredible to watch, and the handling of her crumbling sanity is beautifully carried off. Equally, Russell Eccleston brings out the juxtaposing complexities of John’s character with brilliant skill; the subtleties of his coercive and abusive behaviour are spine chillingly effective and in no way overplayed. Ebony Cassie’s turn as Mary and Jennie brings an added layer of insidiousness, both highlighting the discrepancies of I’s postpartum treatment and the disorienting strangeness of I’s confined world. The final reveal of the artifice of the play’s setting leaves its audience with the unsettling sense of wondering whether any of what I had experienced was real, drawing us into the creeping paranoia of her delusion. This is a challenging piece to watch with its emotionally disturbing subject matter, but it is a powerful adaptation of one of North American’s most chilling short stories.