The flame-haired star of the most famous Pre-Raphaelites paintings, such as John Everett Millais’s Ophelia and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix, is an icon of art, familiar to millions, yet few know much if anything about real woman behind the images. Lizzie Siddal’s life is a remarkable and tragic tale, a story of someone talented and original who was patronised and destroyed by her era. Her own work has been disregarded but, shortly after the discovery of a lost wall painting by Siddal, Jeremy Green’s new play seeks to put Lizzie back in her rightful place at the centre of her own history.
The famously beautiful Lizzie, one of eight children of an Old Kent Road cutlery seller, was neither attractive not socially acceptable to Victorian eyes, but the Pre-Raphaelite artists who paid her to model were obsessed by her unconventional presence. She shivered in a cold bath for Millais and became Rosetti’s lover, yet her life ended in illness, depression and suicide. When Lizzie tried to step off the wall and into the studio, becoming an artist herself, she discovered that she did not enjoy the same freedoms as the men, and that she was dispensable to artists who preferred fantasy to reality.
The play revolves around Emma West, a dead ringer for Lizzie, whose performance is remarkable. As the still centre of the play she is endlessly watchable, always the grown-up living life for real while privileged young men play games with her. The rest of the cast has fun playing famous Pre-Raphaelite faces: James Northcote as a cravated Millais, looking like a preview of Peter Capaldi’s forthcoming Doctor Who; Daniel Crossley as a bustling, Simon Callow-style Ruskin; and Simon Darwen funny and prickly as William Holman Hunt. However, Green writes them as a collection of comic posh boys, and Tom Bateman’s Rossetti is beset with mannerisms, treating his mass of curly hair like a prop. This means that by the time the drama gets serious our respect for Rossetti and co. as real characters has drained away.
Green provides an enjoyable evening, and makes important arguments about the subservience of women in art, the deep social conservatism underlying the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and the privileged status that allows artists to indulge themselves. It is Lizzie who fights and suffers for her art, while the men around her seem mere boys who are unworthy of her. Emma West rules this play, beaming a living, breathing Lizzie Siddal into the Arcola from a century and a half ago, while the famous men of the age seem to have faded away into caricature.
At the Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin St, London E8 3DL until 21 December with start times of 7.30pm and 2.30pm for Saturday matinees. Tickets £19.50 (£15 concessions). Tuesday is pay what you can (except 17 December). To book call 020 7503 1646 or visit the Arcola Theatre website. Production image by Simon Annand. Londonist saw the production on a complimentary ticket.