Brighton Fringe 2022
Written and performed by Heather Alexander. Directed by Dominique Gerrard, Set by Heather Alexander, Lit by the Rialto team.
Till May 22nd.
Heather Alexander brings Room her spellbinding adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1929 polemic A Room of One’s Own to the Rialto. Directed by Dominique Gerrard, Alexander performs her own show.
It is a room on set, Alexander providing an elaborate one, with a piano stool centred, two chairs each side, stage left a desk cluttered with books and fine wines, with right a bookshelf and downstage a drinks cabinet. All around piles of books like Roman hypercausts await excavation. Some get a tearing treatment. Music – Chopin’s Berceuse, and Ethel Smyth’s (also 1929) Violin and Horn Concerto punctuate Woolf’s thoughts.
Alexander pours herself a drink. Several as the evening progresses and she paces around, sits down rejecting several false starts of the lecture she’s about to give at Girton College, Cambridge, in October 1929. Each pulling-back, each palimpsest on approaching the start of the final texts has Alexander get up, paces out the actual lecture the 112 pages the volume’s based on. After those false starts, we’re in Woolf’s text: about a fifth of it touching on everything inflaming Woolf.
Alexander tries out her voice on the assembled young women. It’s a quizzical voice. Every so often her own recorded voice interrupts proceedings. Sometime she accompanies it with the same words: internal and external, continual flight and overtaking.
We’re in Cambridge; Woolf weaves the actual moment of her arrival as part of the narrative. First those ‘you can’t walk there…. you can’t enter here’ sexisms casually thrust out by petty ‘Beadles’, college officials, librarians when Woolf’s inspired to see the original Milton Lycidas with corrections as noted by Charles Lamb. There’s a Manx cat, or Wool thinks it’s a Manx. It stops perhaps pondering its existence. Alexander pauses exquisitely. She has the knack of sudden enlightenment, doubt, diversion.
After a particularly fine lunch – the metaphors of biscuit ‘dry to the core recurs – she retires with Mary Seaton of Girton to discover the main impediment: money. The college was founded in 1869 with just £30,000, as a text Woolf quotes attests – it’s a book written by her own mother Lady Stephen in fact, whom she doesn’t name.
Each impediment to women writers is down to social mores, money, a lack of a tradition. A tradition she often adumbrates, citing middle class existence and a few exceptional break-outs. But there’s one in the wings. Alexander’s way with this list is playful, mordant and admonitory over Austen, the Brontes, Eliot. Eliot gets ‘respectful’ as if rather difficult to love or admonish. There’s deep reading of the way Woolf thinks of these writers in Alexander’s reflections.
Alexander shifts about on her sets, speaks out and suddenly lights a cigarette. Watches us beadily, dons spectacles, shows the beating mind behind her eyes as she ponders, like the cat, which way to jump.
The threads of this lead to Woolf’s projecting Shakespeare’s sister, who never has the chances her brother has. No schooling, threatened with a beating – Woolf’s laid the groundwork quoting from G M Trevelyan’s liberal history on such treatment; excluded from all conversation and advancement and falling pregnant to a theatre manager, kills herself, lying buried where the omnibuses thunder over the Elephant and Castle.
There’s many threads Alexander draws together, but principally a room of one’s own with £500 a year, say about £10,000 now, excluding the obscenity of current rent hikes (rent was proportionately far less of a percentage cost than now). And then there’s a sudden light. Aphra Behn who started it all, proving women can earn their living by writing (she’s even better-known now). Alexander draws Woolf’s own threads necessarily tighter than even Woolf can. She has less time.
This is an exquisite performance, with equally exquisite use of props, a surprising amount of which are used to effect and point throughout. And there’s a few shocks Woolf might not have contemplated.
As a condensation and enactment of Woolf’s seminal text this can’t be improved on. The outstanding one-person show I’ve seen this Fringe.