This new take on Virginia Woolf’s life is both beautifully dreamlike in its structure and striking in its execution, with some genuinely poignant and tender moments. One to watch indeed!
In the Q&A after this devised ensemble piece by ‘Theatre with Teeth’, an Exeter University-affiliated student theatre company, co-directors Sally Wood and Holly Williams spoke passionately about their desire for their latest show Woolf to take a “different approach” to the author’s life, to move away from merely recounting the unfortunate events of her tragic, self-inflicted death. To them, she was “so much more than just a suicidal writer.”
Their approach focused on Woolf’s own words and writing style, with a modernist concern for the mind and the shifting, ever-present nature of memory. And in this sense, the piece succeeds magnificently. Their take on the remembrances of Virginia (Abi Clarke) and her husband Leonard (Tobias Grace) gleams with the kind of vividity, grace, and emotional sincerity one finds in Woolf’s own works, drifting from one memory to the next in a manner which is simultaneously touching, nostalgic and highly compelling.
The ensemble work was the silk-woven glue that held this patchwork of memories together. Using the simplest of means, with only books, coats and a ladder as props, the group conjured up cliffs, cars and libraries as quickly as Virginia conjured them up in her mind, giving an impression almost as if we had stepped directly into the head of the great writer. Much credit to the choreography here, the precision and imagination of which resulted in some truly striking imagery.
Barring the first few minutes, in which jangled nerves seemed to manifest a certain cautiousness in the actors, the performances were truthful and skilled. Abi Clarke in particular shone in the titular role. To capture the complexity of Woolf, on the one hand stubborn, privileged and opinionated, on the other fiercely intelligent, empathetic and emotionally rich, is no mean feat, and Clarke achieved it beautifully. However, the entire cast should be commended for their strong, committed work throughout, each member truly vital to the final product we witnessed this evening.
The choice of contemporary music (predominantly slow, wistful folk ballads) was a brave one, but that bravery, for the most part, paid off. These tracks complemented the action and emotion of the scenes without forcing us out of the reality of the piece.
Certain uses of well-known songs were perhaps a little jarring, but on the whole the music was tastefully chosen.
My only real complaint would be the shortness of the piece and its abrupt ending, which felt like an anti-climax after such a stirring build-up. However, it was confirmed in the aforementioned Q&A that the piece was a “work in progress” and that twenty extra minutes are planned to be added, with revisions done on the existing material, before the company take the show to the Edinburgh Fringe in August. With this in mind, I would strongly urge all those who can to catch this show for its Edinburgh run. What I saw was great; what you will find there is likely to be exceptional.
**** – 4 Stars