ART AND LOVE AMONG THE PRE-RAPHAELITES
1850, and in William Holman Hunt’s studio a new model poses: head gently inclined and body in corsetless flowing robes, the distressed-maiden look beloved of pre-Raphaelite painters. In bursts a tousled Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Tom Bateman): smitten, he invites her to drop her millinery day-job to be Beatrice for his Dante picture. But no sooner has he booked her than the elfin figure of John Everett Millais (James Northcote, an elegant weasel) poaches her in turn to pose in a bath as Ophelia once the bonnet-trimming season is over. “I am the best painter in England. This will be my masterpiece. I will make you immortal”.
And so he does, though in January, which gives her pneumonia. But it is Gabriel whose muse and lover she remains. Meanwhile the testy Holman Hunt (Simon Darwen) disastrously attempts a romantic rescue of a cheerfully pragmatic whore (Jayne Wisener), because “reclaiming a woman would be a heroic act”. That ends as badly as you’d hope, and indeed from time to time there is a touch of Monty Python in his depiction of the artists. Why not? comedy is a quick way to expose absurdity, and its comic counterpoint is one of the pleasures of Jeremy Green’s vigorous, entertaining and ultimately haunting play. It’s good: appropriate to have its first outing in this former paint factory, but I’d put money on it going further.
The balance is beautifully kept under Lotte Wakeham’s sharp direction, and the picture darkens towards the end. For the central story, given all its dignity, is tribute to the South London seamstress who could read, loved poetry, and longed to paint and express her faltering visions of transcendence. She had some talent, spotted by John Ruskin (a peerlessly creepy yet sincere portrayal by Daniel Crossley). Emma West is perfect: she has a remarkable resemblance to the redhead of the pictures and a still ethereality in her small, pale, unusual face. Which makes it all the more beguiling when Siddal reveals a sharp wit, and tragic in her final desperate decline.
For while it was healthy artistically for the Pre-Raphaelites to challenge Victorian stiffness, it was still mid-century. Defying convention in real life brought collateral damage. Siddall lived with Rosseti and expected marriage; he demurred as she became weary, weakened by her Ophelia immersion. Prescribed laudanum she became addicted; he married her out of pity, she being at 29 “used goods”. Two unhappy years and a stillbirth saw her dead from an overdose. In grief and guilt Rossetti buried all his poems in her grave.
Oh, and seven years later he had them dug up and published. This ghoulish fact dramatically book-ends the play, graveyard lanterns opening it and a wicked final scene showing the artist persuaded by his chirpy agent to retrieve the manuscript and have it disinfected for two guineas. Nobody will blame him, because “talent vindicates all behaviour”. The eternal cry of the artist…
box office 0207 503 1646 to 21 Dec http://www.arcolatheatre.com