In a rare pre-show address, Belvoir St Theatre’s artistic director, Eamon Flack, gazes out at a scattered and masked-up audience. “I didn’t think I’d ever be so happy to see a theatre one-third full,” he laughs, eliciting titters from a crowd fizzing with anticipation on the opening night of Belvoir Street Theatre’s first show in six months. The lights flicker off.
When they come up again, Anita Hegh, playing Virginia Woolf, is sitting on the only piece of set dressing she will interact with over the course of Carissa Licciardello and Tom Wright’s adaptation of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: a single, nobbly black chair. For the next seventy-five minutes, she will not touch another human or object, save for a tattered, leather-bound book, which represents every text she will go on to reference in her feminist polemic. It’s hard to think of a play better adapted for these unusual times.
When Virginia Woolf first published her essay A Room of One’s Own in 1929, it caused quite the stir. The suffragette movement had just won women the vote; a measly 30,000 pounds had been scraped together to build a women’s college; but huge swathes of society were still barred to them.
Hegh’s Woolf sits deep in thought, trying to pin down an idea at the edge of her consciousness, when a man requests that she move from the river’s banks on the grounds of ‘Oxbridge’. Later, she is refused admittance to the university’s library unless accompanied by a man. These everyday indignities indicate that while her presence is technically tolerated on the grounds of that elite university, it’s within strict parameters. She is not the master of her destiny. In the constant interruptions and incursions on her time and space, she loses the “little fish” of an idea that she was trying to reel in. At dinner, the women dine on beef and prunes while the men feast. “Why do men drink wine, while women drink water?” she asks.
All this is to substantiate Woolf’s main thesis: that women, for much of history, sorely lacked the pragmatic tools for intellectual freedom and creative flourishing, those being financial means and the luxury of space. This is true; we know this is true. Licciardello’s adaptation of the work stays loyal to its inspiration, lifting the essay’s most famed phrases and delivering them straight from the mouth of Hegh. It doesn’t try to modernise Woolf’s points – it delivers them as they are.
The calculated formlessness of Woolf’s essay is its great triumph, a quality that Licciardello’s direction carefully evokes in the play’s opening scenes. Like Woolf seamlessly steering her reader from imagining the physicality of a London bus, to the taste of an unappealing bowl of custard and prunes and into her introspective stream of consciousness, the adaptation flits between conjuring spaces as varied as Jane Austen’s sitting room, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and Woolf’s contemporary London – a great feat, given the sparseness of David Fleishcer’s set and costuming.
Dressed in draping, formless navy and black silk, with pinned-back hair demure, Hegh strides around the stage playing not so much Woolf herself, but the woman dancing around Woolf’s mind – her fury, passion and quizzical rage. “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,” her voice rises, cracking on the last notes of her declaration.
While Hegh dominates centre-stage, at its corner sits a giant glass box. Cordoned off from Hegh, the play’s only other actor, Ella Prince stays inside it, shapeshifting into a carousel of women, real and imagined, to complement Woolf’s musings. Sometimes it seems as if Prince is acting out Woolf as she appears to the world – dressed in billowing silk, quietly lighting a cigarette, blandly gazing into the distance through a fog. If Hegh plays Woolf’s mind, Prince plays her physicality. And in her other iterations – corseted in a Renaissance gown, lying on a bed of flowers, garbed in the millennial uniform of a puffer jacket and jeans – she plays Woolf’s references as the world sees them, too.
So, why do we need this play, now? Why do we need to rehash the social critique of a woman living a century ago, when our world has since changed so dramatically? Licciardello and Wright may have anticipated this question, though they do not provide an answer to it. Towards the close of the play, Hegh chuckles wryly as she admits some of her musings may seem “out of date”, but the play’s rage is still primarily on behalf of privileged women denied access to elite institutions. The play does not transpose Woolf’s rage to the problems of the present.
The first reason may be that a lot of the issues Woolf battled – male entitlement, the lack of space afforded to women in elite institutions, the pressure to ‘marry well’ – are still relevant today. This is of course true, but unsatisfactory. Many aspects of the world that Woolf felt shut out from now have been expanded to usher in white, queer, educated women such as herself, while remaining shut off to other marginalised groups of female-identifying people. The real answer, I think, lies in the fact that it is not so much Woolf’s conclusions that make the play so resonant, but her reasoning.
Woolf’s conclusions are plain as day now – not nearly as revolutionary as they were in her time – but there’s a clarity to the journey she takes to arrive at them. She walks her audiences through the story of Judith Shakespeare, the fictional sister of William, who was gifted with the same genius and was as “agog to see the world” as her brother – but, for having been born a woman, is instead driven mad by domestic drudgery, pennilessness and buried at a crossroads. It’s in the mathematics of her storytelling. Licciardello and Wright show their working, and that’s the only reason a play like this – one that incorporates such little story, and so much didacticism – still works. Quod erat demonstrandum.
Belvoir’s A Room of One’s Own arrives at its crucial moment – that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” slowly, like it was building up to it. But everyone who bought a ticket to this play isn’t holding their breath for the ending. We know what the point is. The fun is in getting there.