Vita and Virginia: Two Actresses in Search of a Play
In 1922, the then 40 year old Virginia met Vita, who was ten years her junior, at a London dinner party given by Clive Bell, Bloomsbury Group painter who was married to her sister Vanessa. A rich aristocrat, Vita was married to Harold Nicolson, a diplomat. Vita was a flamboyant sapphist who actively and openly carried on multiple affairs. This did not trouble Nicolson, who was an active homosexual. Vita was sexually attracted to the older, unstylish, Virginia by dint of Virginia's quality of mind and superior literary talent, and began a correspondence with Virginia. Although it waxed and waned over time, the correspondence continued until Woolf's death in 1941. According to the letters, the bond between Virginia and her husband and publishing business partner, Leonard Woolf, became deeper over the years.
The idea of an epistolary play telling this story in Vita and Virginia's own literate and passionate words is a very enticing one, indeed. The quality prose employed in their letters imparts a gloss that pleases both the ear and the mind. Rachel Black Spaulding (Sackville-West) and Mona Hennessy (Wolff) are delightful purveyors of the personas of these artists as expressed in their letters to one another. Despite all this, Vita and Virginia is a stubbornly dull adaptation.
The problem is in the nature of the material. Although the letters are excerpted and staged by Jane Mandel so as to suggest the give and take of conversation, these letters even more than most are too composed and artificial (i.e., writerly) to pass as real conversation. Thus, there is an artificiality about Vita and Virginia's "conversation".
Furthermore, Atkins has been unable to create a dramatic structure. In other words, there is no play here. There is an extended series of conversations, or even scenes, but none of the flow, rhythm, development and climaxes that are necessary for vital theatre. The closest that Vita and Virginia comes to rising to a climactic moment is when the women agree to visit together for what sounds as if it may have been their only actual occasion of physical sexual contact. Here, Spaulding and Hennessy cross the stage from their desk chairs at either end in order to come together. Additionally, it appears that the letters lack some important information which distorts the reality of their relationship. Specifically, Virginia appears to be a largely contented homebody type whose same sex libido is aroused by the glamorous, sexually uninhibited Vita. Her 1941 suicide is posited as an anomalous response to the World War II death of her nephew in Spain. I cannot recall whether any mention is even made of her having had other sapphic relationships. In reality, Virginia had had earlier such affairs which are not mentioned here. She also suffered a chronic, deep depression which, along with Vita's roving, played a role in the deterioration of her relationship with Vita. She also felt trapped in her home with her husband, whom she believed spied on her.
Rachel Black Spaulding is compelling as the globe-trotting, openly and actively lesbian, stylishly dressed in bisexual attire (much praise here is due to the costume design of Deborah Caney) Sackville-West. Mona Hennessy is a homey, enchanting Woolf. Although this Woolf may only exist in her letters.
Some theatergoers will find this opportunity to see two accomplished actresses mellifluously give voice to the stylist and evocative letters of Vita and Virginia well worth their time and attention.
Vita and Virginia continues performances (Evenings: Thursday 7:30 PM; Friday and Saturday 8 PM/ Matinees: Sunday 3 PM) through October 28, 2012 at Luna Stage Theatre Company, 555 Valley Road, West Orange, New Jersey 07052. Box office: 973-395-5551; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: www.lunastage.org.
Vita and Virginia adapted by Eileen Atkins from correspondence between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West; Directed by Jane Mandel