Eileen Atkin’s 1992 play Vita and Virginia is a brave choice for any director to stage. An adaptation of the decade long affair between two of the most prominent literary figures of their time, relayed through extracts of letters to each other – any production risks becoming stilted and dull. With an epistolary play, the best moments are never written down. It’s a risky script, then, and it’s one that Sarah Taylor’s talented direction more than did justice to.
The most fitting word for the production is ‘charming’ – it’s a flirty and airy socialite of a play, much like Vita (Corrinne Clark), skipping from letter to letter, from London to Persia, from Virginia’s (Emmeline Downie) desk to Vita’s divan. Taylor’s subtle direction and use of space transformed the stage. The opening scene set the tone immediately- we saw Clark arranged on her chaise-longue, telling us with a society drawl and a cocked eyebrow about the charming Mrs Woolf – “quite old”. Immediately, Virginia’s section lit up and her side of the meeting was relayed. This facetious, arch, loving, mocking, at times tragic, back-and-forth continued for the entire production, carried excellently by the two actresses.
The joy was in the small details – Vita and Virginia spend much of the play circling each other, taunting, flirting, gradually dragging themselves deeper into their career-defining affair. Each began on one side of the stage, in their own little world, but Virginia ventured to Vita’s divan on a visit or two, and there was a very careful touching of hands. Vita also secretly slinked to Virginia’s desk, and oh-so-carefully placed a plant there as a present.
A play like this must depend on its actors for success, and Downie and Clark did not disappoint. There’s the mercurial Vita, teasing Virginia out of her shell, but who is also deeply vulnerable. Virginia is acerbic, crabby and brilliant. It is a deeply close, personal play about a relationship blooming across decades, and the setting and lighting were effectively designed. Especially at the beginning, the spotlight switched from one actor to the other, back and forth as the letters come in a flurry. The literary discussions were also beautifully done, and the dialogue shifts over time and space like some Woolf’s most beautiful passages in To The Lighthouse. Orlando’s status as the longest love letter in history was well established in the beautiful last scene, after Virginia’s suicide. The sight of Downie quietly slipping rocks from Vita’s plants into her pockets is one of the most quietly affecting moments I’ve seen in Cambridge theatre so far, closely followed by Clark turning lines from Orlando in a poem, until Virginia returns and they recite them together.
It was a well-constructed, emotionally gut-wrenching scene, but that did not quite absolve the play of earlier flaws. The actual plot, as much as there is one, was fairly blurry in the middle section, replaced by quarrelling over Vita’s society lovers that never seemed to go anywhere. It was not until the last few minutes that we saw the pitter-patter of civility break down and genuine passion shared between the two. I struggled with Virginia being played so comically for much of the production- her emotion and fragility, though well executed towards the end, should really have come before. This was really a wider problem with the production. The duologue was disappointingly monotone for much of the first part. The sudden tone-shift at the advent of the Second World War was jarring, and the audience was left wanting an emotional catharsis that came too late. There was also not much of a sense of a progression in their relationship, and the languid eroticism of the Bloomsbury set was hard to find.
Still, the beautiful acting, staging and direction more than made up for these setbacks. The core of a great production is there, ready to transport you to a 1920s literary salon through the Corpus Playroom. If you feel after Vita and Virginia’s run that you lack some Bloomsbury content in your life, then the only option is to direct you to perhaps the best twitter account on the internet- the Vita & Virginia twitter bot (@VitaVirginiaBot). It automatically tweets excerpts chronologically from Vita and Virginia’s letters to each other, brightening your experience of Twitter’s troll-riddled landscape with some appropriately “Saphist” early 20th century literary flirting, just as “Vita and Virginia” brightened up the drudgery of Week 2.
(Source for the featured image: openculture.com)