Vita and Virginia

Tue 22nd – Sat 26th May 2012

reviews

Lucy Wood

at 08:21 on 23rd May 2012

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Elevenonetheatre’s new production, ‘Vita and Virginia’, a play based on the letters by and the love affair between Virginia Wolf and Vita Nicolson (née Sackville-West) purports in its program to be ‘a rather unconventional play’, taking its lines directly from their communications and weaving them together to create the production. The issues of the play, however, lie perhaps not in its unconventionality, despite the concerns of the director (Cate Field) that ‘it is driven not by dramatic events, but instead by the subtly evolving relationship between the two women. In fact, that the play was not driven by a single dramatic event or by a traditional structure was adequately compensated for by some solid performances by Virginia (Helen Taylor) or Vita (Ida Persson). The issue seemed rather to have been that the cast and crew appear to have been a little nervous about the whole thing, and not without some reason. Whilst the notion of a play based on the letters of two such women is a perfectly interesting one, the presentation of the lines as a dialogue between the two actresses only emphasises that these were not in fact words designed to be read aloud (as was evinced by the occasional tripping over lines, or confusion as to exactly whom should speak when. Moreover, by turning their thoughts and ideas into a conversation, wherein they might touch, look at and directly talk to one another, means that the idea of space of time between those letters, for reflection and gathering of thought is entirely lost. This also led to one or two somewhat uncomfortable moments where one kept speaking whilst the other disappeared off stage in order to find a prop, or to change costume. The great pity of an otherwise very good performance was what more might have been achieved with just a little more imagination and a little more conviction.

In the production’s use of space, however, and particularly its setting in Lady Margaret Hall’s Old Library, found a more effective balance between the presentation of dialogue and space than might have been achieved by the set alone. The 1910 library was particularly fitting in its décor and style, providing a suitably intimate setting for this rather quiet and calm play - even if there was some trouble with student noise which, it must be said, was admirably dealt with by the cast and crew. The smallness of the stage also allowed Taylor and Persson to play with the idea of Vita and Virginia being physically separated, but remaining united around their letters and ideas, which they did with some success. However, as with many of the good points in this play, it remains that these could have been pushed further; far more might have been made of their separation particularly while Vita, as an ambassador’s wife, travelled around the world, and yet was as static, sitting in her leather armchair, as Virginia, trapped in England and far away from the woman she loved. On a similar note, whilst the script clearly tries to affect a more naturalistic and intimate image of the twenty year love affair which inspired some of Woolf’s best literature, and to confound ‘many of the theatrical traditions we have grown to expect’, it seems to forget that life is nonetheless without its own little dramas and tensions. One cannot help but leave feeling that – whilst there is nothing wrong with attempting to do something different, indeed it is to be actively encouraged – it is not something to be half-heartedly, or nervously, done.

All in all, 'Vita and Virginia' was a strong play, with two competent performances and with several very good points to commend it. It remains, however, a play too concerned with, and too afraid of being something new or different, or something which people might not have fully understood or have been unconvinced by. It therefore, despite its proclamations of newness, has a tendency to lapse into stereotypes: the movie-style ending, complete with fade-out and poetry recital was a particularly striking example. Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile evening for any with an interest in Virginia Woolf or new writing.

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James Fennemore

at 10:00 on 23rd May 2012

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‘Vita and Virginia’ is a good concept crying out for a little more innovation. The relationship between Virginia Woolf (Helen Taylor) and Vita Sackville-West (Ida Persson) is certainly a fascinating one, and has enough emotional potential to make for some excellent drama. The manner in which their relationship is displayed, however, does not do justice to the potential of the characters.

The problem is primarily with the writing. Or, rather, the lack of it. ‘Vita and Virginia’ can more accurately be said to have been ‘arranged’ by playwright Eileen Atkins, who has used the letters sent between the two women in order to create the dialogue of the production. Woolf herself recognised the possibilities of using letters or diary entries of writers to explore their lives and personalities, writing that ‘we can make them light up the many windows of the past; we can watch the famous dead in their familiar habits and fancy sometimes that we are very close and can surprise their secrets’. But rather than choosing to use this correspondence as a touchstone upon which to build the characters and action, Atkins has tended too much towards replication. The actors, for the most part, seem to recite the letters. This creates a somewhat disarming effect of falseness; the ‘dialogue’ does not sit naturally as it makes the clunky transition from the written to the spoken word.

This problem becomes manifest in the performances of the actors. Helen Taylor and Ida Persson do recite the letters beautifully, but their style of delivery within the context of the play often seems awkward, as if they and director Cate Field have tried to resist the slightly stilted format of the play’s structure. The actors look at, and respond to one another, as if they are in dialogue, yet the words themselves are limited to the duologue that the recitation of the letters stipulates. It’s peculiar to watch. This is a terrible shame, as the performances are at times really rather good. The casting has been excellent – Taylor and Persson are startling likenesses to the women whom they play, assisted by two rather wonderful wigs and well chosen costumes. They do a proficient job of dealing with the difficult script with which they have been presented, and capture the flavour of the characters very proficiently. It’s just disappointing that the play never quite allows them to work to their potential.

‘Vita and Virginia’ struggles to stand as a play in its own right. It is better seen as an introductory supplement to Woolf’s life and work. Perhaps potential audience members might do better just to follow the advice given by Woolf when she channelled the supposed thought of Christina Rossetti: ‘All I care for you to know is here. Behold this green volume. It is a copy of my collected works. It costs four shillings and sixpence. Read that.’

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