Adaptation can do more than reproduce. Bringing Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own into the 21st-century is the perfect opportunity to tackle the issues she wrote about nearly a century ago. But Heather Alexander’s adaptation Room - A Room of One’s Own, though technically well-accomplished and well-acted, misses the wealth of material Woolf offered us in 1929. It is less “an innovative dramatic interpretation of an iconic text” as billed, and more a simple dramatisation of Woolf’s essay. Enjoyable for those less familiar with Woolf, but less interesting for fans.
Is this really the way we should remember Woolf?
That said, Heather Alexander’s acting cannot be faulted. Taking the narrative from Woolf’s fictionalised lecture at ‘Oxbridge,’ we are confronted with scenes of misogyny from the academic present and literary history. Extracts from Chaucer and Trevelyan give scathing context to Woolf’s field: big names, and bigger sexists.
Alexander’s Woolf is authoritative but never caricatured. She is a woman, not a god. The occasional raised eyebrow, the cigarette puffed under a blue light: Woolf’s spirit is certainly present, and we relish the dry, humorous wit so recognisable in her own writing. Dominique Gerrard’s direction carves Woolf’s text into small vignettes, as Alexander moves from place to place across the stage. Alexander loses us when she hugs the back of the stage, but when close to the audience, her monologue becomes an intimate tête-à-tête with better presence.
Nearly a hundred years have passed since Woolf’s essay. The female writers she mentions – Aphra Behn, George Eliot, Austen, the Brontë sisters – have made it firmly onto the syllabus. They’re popular, and their discussion in Room adds sadly little to the argument. Why not take Woolf’s spirit and bring lesser-known female writers out of forgotten history and into the spotlight? Alice Walker’s famous criticism of the essay throws up Phillis Wheatley for consideration. Here is a black woman in the 18th century and a slave who wrote poetry without her liberty, let alone a room of her own. Woolf’s famous allusion to lesbianism – “Chloe liked Olivia” – is mentioned by Alexander but never taken more than skin-deep, observing only that “apparently they shared a laboratory.” It’s 2022. It is time to explore further than Woolf was allowed to in the 1920s and honour this writer in her essence.
Room is nice and neat, but is this really the way we should remember Woolf? Alexander and Gerrard’s production is adept and atmospheric, but fans of Virginia Woolf will be left wanting more. It’s a good performance but offers little more than what we could read from Woolf’s essay, in our own rooms. It’s time to examine Virginia in the harsher lights of the theatre.