The theatre is at one-third of its usual capacity.
The foyer, usually bustling, is muted and static. Everyone wears masks. There are strains of relief in the muffled voices swirling around who say they are glad to be back.
There isn’t joy, not yet, but there is anticipation and a sense of readiness.
When we are spaced out in the theatre, masks in place and distance observed, there’s a short speech about safety – and about the pain of the last few months. How artists have been separated from audiences and theatres have struggled to survive. Artistic Director Eamon Flack is emotional as he takes us through it, but here we are together and here is a tentative return.
My glasses fog on a hard exhale; the stage has a halo. The lights go down, and we begin.
After the interiority of the past several months, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own feels like a good first outing; it speaks of need for space, and we are all intimately acquainted, like it’s new, with the idea of space or our lack of it.
At first look, there’s just a chair on a stage, and Anita Hegh – every inch Virginia, all sharp wit and sharp tongue and seemingly uncorkable outpourings of detailed thought – speaking to just us, a diminished number but no less present, about the historical necessity of those spaces.
Hegh is a knife; she, as Woolf, slices through years of history, and the history of fiction, to chart women’s hard-won and historically fraught space and time to write against the luxuries and freedoms of men. In an adaptation smartly trimmed by Carissa Licciardello and Tom Wright to its stickiest points, she conjures worlds in the shape of her words.
The first time she mentions that room of one’s own – the one, along with stable income, that a woman needs in order to create for the sake of creating, without rage or risk or haste – a Perspex box, previously dark and difficult to see, lights up. In it, a chair. In it, promise.
The magic of stagecraft slowly creeping back in.
The heart of this production – directed with expansive mental acuity and rightly unsentimental sensitivity by Licciardello – is Hegh, embodying a momentum that propels the world. David Fleischer’s set is minimal, its shape mostly found in Kelsey’s Lee’s searching lights – they seek out Hegh and carry her forward.
Alice Chance’s music carries her along like a wave, bridges Hegh’s breaths between thoughts. Virginia Woolf isn’t delicate, and Hegh’s presence isn’t delicate, but the elements around her, in comparison, are – they are in deference to her, and perhaps hers to command. It’s an easy, subtle unity.
As the play continues (it’s an ideal 75 minutes), the room becomes many rooms, filled with many women. Ella Prince, billed as Actor, moves with it through time. She sets fire to her writings on a desk. She lies in a field of roses. She sits and smokes and thinks. She is the woman with patent leather boots Woolf tells us she sees once getting into a taxi, except she’s also here in the present, alone with her coffee in a mason jar and her laptop, reading over her latest draft. She’s the woman Virginia Woolf could only dream of.
And yet, is she?
It seems striking that even here in this space of their vindication and validation, this continuum of women still don’t have access to a voice. Prince never speaks. That Prince serves largely as imagery feels wrong; that she flickers into view and fades again into darkness before we’ve barely even seen each new setup is a loss.
Not even when she finally breaks out of her box, summoned by Woolf as the spirit of the fictional Shakespeare’s sister (a great music act and a device used by Woolf in her essay) to regard Virginia face-to-face, does the play break open. It’s disappointing that the future is so silent. It’s disappointing that the ground doesn’t crack beneath our feet.
Woolf herself understood the forces of progress and change. In her essay, she says its likely her record of this oppression will become dated, and the audience laughs because so much still rings true. But Woolf was also right; more women have time and space to write than they used to, and the identity gap between the women who don’t have the money and time and rooms of their own to write and the ones that do are clear and have clearly shifted – the lines are perhaps more clearly than ever drawn to exclude working class women and those in poverty; women of colour; trans women. Two white women onstage, pens freed, is not a revolutionary gesture.
Prince’s spirit of women could have picked up Woolf’s baton and led us forward, painting the way to a better and more equal future. Or she could have spoken Woolf’s words to a new century, finding new meaning. Instead we remain caught between Woolf’s vision and the world as we now know it.