Many scholars and philistines alike think they have a good understanding of Virginia Woolf – a suicidal bisexual who used too many semicolons. While Theatre With Teeth’s new look at her life does not particularly challenge any of these notions, as a piece of theatre this is an extraordinary, ephemeral fifty minutes that left me re-examining my thoughts not only about Woolf but also about literature and its purpose.
Assured to move anyone who has ever felt like their mental health has been improved by picking up a good book – regardless of whether you are a fan of Woolf or not.
Directors Sally Wood and Holly Williams utilise a small cast and venue to create physical theatre that feels almost immersive. Segments from Woolf’s life, using her own words, are played out in a non-chronological order, imagining Woolf in posthumous conversation with her husband Leonard. While the dream-like nature of the play’s structure sometimes distracts from what is going on and makes it feel a little too disjointed, mostly this adds to the show’s message. The desk and bookshelves that make up the set are used in various capacities, most beautifully when the pages of the books become the waves of the sea at Woolf’s childhood holiday destination.
Sound and lights are used gorgeously to support the action, with fantastical soundscapes and modern folky music providing the backdrop in flashback moments. The actors’ voices add to this, reading passages from the novels aloud to each other and allowing the words to provide a kind of music as they flow over each other. Similarly, props are used to great effect to create whole new places for the audience to get lost in.
But the performances are what make this show so special. Abi Clarke and Tobias Grace shine as Virginia and Leonard, but an ensemble support them well in a number of roles. This group dynamic is what makes the show so special, and the heightened nature of the show’s structure means that the broad characterisation of, for example, Vita Sackville-West, does not feel hammy but instead appropriate.
Ultimately, although some of the more epic or structurally complex themes may feel a little underwhelming, this show is assured to move anyone who has ever felt like their mental health has been improved by picking up a good book – regardless of whether you are a fan of Woolf or not.