The biographies of painters often seem to make for interesting stage works, c.f. Red (Rothko), The Flying Lovers Of Vitebsk (Rothko), Vincent In Brixton (van Gogh), Sunday In The Park With George (Seurat), It’s True, It’s True, It’s True; Artemisia On Trial (Gentileschi). They become even more intriguing when they also take at look at the people who inspired them as was the subject matter of Picasso reviewed just a few days ago. Now in somewhat similar vein there is Rossetti’s Women which looks at the life and loves of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the key founders of the Victorian artistic society known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. If you can’t immediately call Rosetti’s work to mind it is often distinctive in its depiction of women as copper haired beauties with expressive eyes and pouting lips and he frequently accompanied such portraits with poetry – he was a dab hand at that too.
Joan Greening’s play features three of the women who acted as models for his creations namely his fiancée, later wife Lizzie Siddal, prostitute Fanny Cornforth who became Rossetti’s housekeeper (ahem!) and Jane Morris wife of fellow artist/designer William but secretly devoted to DGR as he was often known. Rather more than workaday artist models, they were muses who also fell for Rossetti in a big way, then struggled to gain and keep the attention of the celebrated painter. Rossetti, rather like Picasso, thrived on the devotion of this trio and, if you take my meaning, liked to keep his options open. The women become complicit by seeking to undermine each other and frequently protest that they are the real object of his affection. Even the death of Siddal from an overdose and Cornforth’s abortion did little to regulate Rossetti’s behaviour.
Unlike the Picasso drama, Rossetti himself does not appear to tell us his own story or excuse his actions. Greening’s script lays complete emphasis on the trio of women. Originally conceived as a play for one actor bringing the three women to life, the characters have now been separated out and engage mostly in a series of duologues as they battle for some sort of supremacy over the other two. Julia Munrow (who originally played in the one person version of the show) as Fanny Cornforth is clearly at the centre of events. Her performance narrowly avoids the “tart with a heart” stereotype and it’s a characterisation that grows on the viewer as the piece progresses. Emma Hopkins plays Lizzie Siddal as a Victorian damsel in distress and, in her floaty nightgown brings an other worldly quality to the role. Sarah Archer, as the socially climbing and somewhat Machiavellian Jane Morris, has the upper edge in the acting stakes – but then she does have some of the best lines which are delivered with relish.
The playwright directs and moves events along swiftly. Costumes are suitably of the period and are enough to suggest context without recourse to intricate scenery and furnishings. Indeed, given the lushness of much of Rossetti’s work the settings are very sparse; this does not particularly detract from the storyline, however. Filming is somewhat rudimentary, and I found it helped to watch the supplied subtitled version to help with dialogue clarity. While these are not fully developed character studies there is sufficient detail to ensure that the women’s stories make sense although, rather as in the case of the Picasso piece, it still remains a bit of a mystery as to what these women got out of their fractious relationships with the male painter. The stock figure of the tortured artist wrestling with his demons, clearly has an effect on others as well as themselves and in this lies the drama.
Rossetti’s Women is available via Scenesaver – click here
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