18 December 2013

Lizzie Siddal at the Arcola Theatre

Clashing calendars had kept me away from the Arcola for a while (there are a lot of good theatres in London) and it took some planning to get to see Lizzie Siddal just a few days before it closed.

My usual, deliberately absent, preparation meant that I knew little about Lizzie other than she was tied in with the pre-Raphaelites. That was enough.

I worked in London that day, near Kings Cross, and walked to the Arcola. It is about 4km to Dalston and that meant a modest walk of around 40m. I should have worn other shows though as my brogues were not built for pounding pavements.

I got to the Arcola in plenty of time and was intending to eat some cake or something to keep me going. I was pleasantly surprised to find a vegetable stew on offer. It was delicious.

My plan was to be laid back and not to rush for my customary front-row seat but the best laid plans etc. etc. and I found the temptation too much. I was not the first in by any means but I was in early enough to choose a corner seat at the front.

The play takes us from when Lizzie first met the pre-Raphaelites while working as a model, through her turbulent years with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to her death and what Rossetti did afterwards.

Much of the play was about the pre-Raphaelites and there was a lot of humour in their interactions as their large egos played off each other. Millais' first act was to tell us that he is the best artist in the country. The others are equally conceited about the importance of their art.

Lizzie was drawn in to this circle of self-congratulation but was little more than a plaything to them. Other playthings included a very Cockney model who more lived up to their expectation that models were prostitutes. Other characters that we met included patrons and critics.

The beauty of Lizzie Siddal was in the story telling, especially in the dialogue between the (male) artists. The structure and pace of the play gave the emotions, good and bad, space to develop and do their work on us.

Lizzie herself rode through these highs and lows with equanimity.  Rossetti treated her badly, including the best excuse for not getting married ever , he spent the money required on peacocks instead, but she took this in her stride saying that they were very nice peacocks. She was hurt by his behaviour, and did want to marry him, but she was far from being the feeble victim.

It was all very nicely done and was comfortably worth the blisters I gained though my ill-advised travel choice.

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