Lizzie Siddal was the woman spotted in the relative obscurity of a Soho hat shop and made immortal in a series of paintings, most notably in John Everett Millais' 1852 oil painting of the drowning Ophelia. As generations of art historians and biographers have been eager to observe, Lizzie's story became a sad mirror of her fictional counterpart's: devoted to a charismatic but ultimately fickle man, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, she became depressed and eventually took a laudanum overdose. Also like Ophelia, she was disturbed even after death: her grave was exhumed in 1869 to retrieve the poetry that the grieving Rossetti threw into her coffin.

Already told by Lucinda Hawksley in Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, and by the BBC in the 2009 mini-series Desperate Romantics, Lizzie's story is not exactly obscure. Nonetheless, Jeremy Green's play is unusual in its commitment to making Lizzie a rounded, psychologically complete character where, too often, adaptors have been willing for her to remain the quintessential Victorian femme fragile as she appears in Millais' painting.

From the outset, the play gains from the quite uncanny resemblance Emma West bears to Siddal, particularly Siddal as painted by Millais. Her Lizzie, however, is self-possessed and outspoken, with the same slavish, self-indulgent commitment to art which is exploited to comic effect in Hunt and Millais. After a gloomy prologue, the opening scene sees Rossetti bursting in on Hunt's studio where Lizzie is posing. Their courtship is tender, euphoric and reciprocal in the early scenes, and movingly real later on. Making Lizzie more proactive also has the advantage of making Tom Bateman's Rossetti more complex and sympathetic, where previous versions of the story have made him a callous seducer. It is, on occasion, a little bit soapy – in one scene, when Rossetti tries to casually explain that he is no longer passionately in love, the audience groan as if watching a pantomime. Still, West's painful performance in the second half restores a sense of gravity to her final scenes.

Though the story is a tragic one, the play takes a wryly humorous stance on the Pre-Raphaelites' pomposity and self-absorption, particularly in the case of Simon Darwen's obsessive, histrionic Holman Hunt. Jayne Wisener's Annie Miller provides some laughs, her Artful Dodger cockney accent and brisk pragmatism are juxtaposed against the artists' romantic apostrophising. Some scenes have the audience in stitches: most notably, Daniel Crossley's uptight, supercilious Ruskin, who prompts a roar of laughter when he announces his wish to "patronise a woman."

Structurally, the play is relatively traditional, but scenes are often terminated abruptly, and the blackouts between segments frequently stand in for substantial leaps forward in time. Though the emotional evolution of the characters is transmitted beautifully in the dialogue, most of the major events happen offstage, so it can take a few moments for the audience to work out precisely what has happened in the intervening time. The structure is effective, but may cause problems for those unfamiliar with the story – helpfully, though, the programme offers generous historical background in essays from playwright Green and biographer Hawksley as well as extracts from letters by the artists themselves.

The production is elegantly put together: costumes are sumptuously Victorian, the set limited to the odd table, chair and easel selected from the artistic paraphernalia stacked along the back wall. Apart from Hunt's half-finished work in the opening scene, we also see a lot of the sketches carried around by Lizzie and Rossetti, and at the end, a full-size reproduction of Millais' Ophelia, the painting which made Lizzie immortal.

The play is rather tonally inconsistent: the seriousness rightly directed at Lizzie's depression and opium abuse comes as a surprise after the lively comedy of earlier scenes. Also, though we have every reason to suppose that the real Pre-Raphaelites were insufferably melodramatic, some poeple may find the dialogue a bit silly and theatrical. Still, the shifting tone keeps the play engaging throughout, and the cast are of a very high calibre, demonstrating understanding of and sympathy for the characters they represent. 

Lizzie Siddal, at Arcola Theatre

Jeremy Green's new play gives Pre-Raphaelite muse Elizabeth Siddal a voice of her own. It is fun and involving, even if it indulges a little too much in the soapy love stories too readily attached to the Pre-Raphaelites. Emma West's Lizzie is a revelation. At the Arcola.

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