Hastings Fringe 2022
A poised, elegant and passionate adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s extended essay
“A Room Of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf is an extended essay, based on two lectures that she gave at Newnham and Girton colleges in 1928 – and the source for this theatrical adaptation. The main tenet is that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” – but the work raises many more questions about the role of patriarchy and the cause of feminism then and now.
Written between the wars, Woolf considers with a clear head where women are in the world. Was there room for optimism, with the achievements of the Suffragettes now translating into votes for every woman over the age of 21 and women’s voices beginning to be heard? This piece is an elegant and powerful reminder of the prevailing and very tangible differences between the attitudes towards – and treatment of – men and women in wider society at the time. As the piece unrolls, the fact that so many inequalities still exist is a jolt to modern sensibilities. (It is important to note, for instance, that as of February 2022 there are 224 female MPs – the first time that representation has exceeded 35%. The glass ceiling is still firmly in place.)
Woolf weaves several strands together, using various images to communicate her points. At college dinners, for example, men are treated to roast partridge whilst women endure soup so watery that the pattern could be observed on the bottom of the bowl – if indeed there was a pattern. Rules about who – and who isn’t – allowed to tread on the hallowed turf in the grounds are enforced by a watchful beadle. If Shakespeare had a sister, would she, given the same opportunities as her brother, (Woolf was not allowed to attend school, unlike her brothers) have been able to tell the stories with which he reached so many hearts and minds? What of the exploits of the Brontes, George Eliot, Aphra Behn? Most telling, she examines the treatment of women since the age of Chaucer – regarded as goods and chattels – the daughter who refused the choice of a husband by her parents was to be “locked up, beaten and flung about the room”.
Woolf has been dramatized widely. This pair of essays needs a fertile imagination and a deal of acting expertise to bring it to life on a stage. It finds both these qualities and more in the hands of Heather Alexander, performer and adaptor and Dominique Gerrard, director.
Moving elegantly between desk, chairs and bookshelves, which become variously her study, college library, dining rooms and banks of the Cam, Alexander, in androgynous trousers and waistcoat, delivers a very well-orchestrated monologue, full of colour and different rhythms, that keep the eye, ear and mind engaged and entertained. There is deliciously understated comedy too. As director, Gerrard has taken great pains over the excellent pace of the piece, which allows the audience to keep abreast of the various threads as they gradually bind together, engendering empathy for the character and deeper understanding of the arguments. It also allows us a glimpse into Woolf’s own character – an independent and passionate woman with a waspish wit, championing the idea that women of all classes must be allowed a voice – and with a cri-de-coeur for the liberation of the female writer.
The collaboration between them has found a delightful physicality to express this piece, which otherwise might run the risk of being static. Alexander’s playful journey under the desk in search of an elusive book – an idea – a thought – or comically chewing through the evidently tough beef served with potatoes and greens at the women’s college – “A homely trinity” – are examples of the neat and imaginative movement and mime which springs the text.
Woolf’s initial brief of providing her listeners with “A nugget of pure truth…to keep on your mantelpiece” is ultimately overtaken and empowered by her literal and figurative denial of entry to the college library. Her final retort – “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind” in Alexander’s fine performance is searing and visceral. This is a poised and provocative evening, offering a chance to view modern feminism through the prism of Woolf’s work. It is a performance full of bravado and rich ideas that leaves the modern audience with much to reflect upon.