Review by Gail M. Burns, July 2003
Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) and Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) were bound to meet. Both were celebrated writers who traveled in similar social circles. That they were fated to be friends and lovers is now well-known, and Eileen Atkins 1994 play Vita & Virginia gives us a tantalizing glimpse into their correspondence and diaries as they pertain to their relationship and their writing. There are also a few tantalizing references to events in their lives and in the world at that time, but the central emphasis is on how these two women affected each other as people and as writers.
The play opens with Vita and Virginia’s first impressions of each other after meeting at a dinner party given by Virginia’s brother-in-law, Clive Bell, in late 1922 when Virginia is age 40 and Vita 30. Both women were married to men, but had relationships with other women, Vita being a notorious “Sapphist” (i.e. a lesbian). In 1925 they became lovers. In the 1930s Vita began her retreat to her gardens at the now-famous Sissinghurst Castle, and had many open affairs with other women, much to Virginia discomfort. It wasn’t until the German invasion that the two writers re-discovered their need for one another, notably so during the London bombing. The play concludes with Virginia’s suicide by drowning in 1941, which took Vita by shock.
Tod Randolph has made a virtual career of impersonating Virginia Woolf at Shakespeare & Company, appearing as the author in Virginia (1993) and A Room of One’s Own (1999). I did not have the pleasure of seeing her in the earlier production, but comparing her Virginia in A Room of One’s Own and here in Vita & Virginia it is obvious that her interpretation of this woman is multi-dimensional. This Virginia is older, more visibly struggling with the demons of mental illness that haunted her life. It is literally her writing that keeps her alive.
Catherine Taylor-Williams evokes memories of the recently departed Katharine Hepburn with her tall, slender, angular body and bold portrayal of the outspoken Vita. This is a woman who is protected from public disgrace by her money and her social status. Vita was the more popular and successful author of the two during this period, though today she is not widely read. Taylor-Williams brings vividly to life Vita’s recognition of Virginia’s genius compared to her own abilities.
All of the words spoken are taken directly from the women’s writings. This is both a blessing and a curse because the way we use language when we speak and the way we use it when we write are very different. This is especially true of writers. Vita and Virginia may have had an inkling that their correspondences and diaries would be read by future generations, and written them as engagingly and articulately as anything they sent to a publisher.
But to witness two live women “writing” at each other on a stage is slightly peculiar. Do not misunderstand that last sentence. Director Dan McCleary does not have either actress pick up a pen and scribble as she speaks, but as the words flow out of their mouths, as they look each other in the eye and interact as if they were sharing these thoughts face-to-face, you are never quite fooled. These words were meant to be read, not spoken, and when rendered as dialogue they are slightly stilted and awkward. But this is ultimately a hazard of the genre, rather than a flaw in this production.
Chastity Collins has designed a very interested set for this show. Usually sets are kept to a minimum at Spring Lawn, where the lovely salon setting is permitted to play itself. Collins has created several sheer fabric panels, three which are suspended above the action and rotate peacefully in the breeze. Others are hung on the walls, and one is suspended from a pole near the fireplace. They depict watercolor renderings of gardens, mountains and waterscapes that evoke places Vita describes in her travelogues to Virginia. The last panel is used effectively at Virginia’s suicide.
There is a certain amount of mental agility involved in following and enjoying this play, although not nearly as much as is required at The Fly-Bottle. Still, some background information is helpful, particularly if you are not familiar with the lives and works of Vita and Virginia. I refer you to the excellent press release created by Shakespeare & Company, which I have posted here.
I came away from the show hungry to learn more about these two women, and to read their works. If you experience a similar interest, there are several books by and about them for sale at the gift shop in the lobby of the Founders’ Theatre, and I am sure you can find more in local libraries and book shops.
Vita & Virginia will be performed by Shakespeare & Company through August 31 at the Spring Lawn Theatre on Kemble Street in Lenox. The show runs two hours with one intermission. Children 12 and up will probably enjoy this show, but be warned that the actresses do share two passionate kisses. Call the box office at 413-637-3353 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003