Review by Susanne Dahn
Edna O’Brien’s 1985 play Virginia is currently being performed at La Mama in Carlton as part of La Mama’s Midsumma season.
The play is directed by Nicholas Opolski (who recently directed the MaTC’s production of Alan Bennett’s Lady in the Van) and it features Heather Lythe (who also starred in La Mama’s pre-Covid production of I Shot Mussolini) in the title role of Virginia.
Virginia is of course Virginia Woolf who left her lasting mark on the twentieth century with a body of literature that, according to the play, ‘remodelled the English language’.
Woolf’s was a (then) radical and flowing blend of intellectual and sensual prose. The whole play, dialogue dense and action light, deftly embodies both Woolf’s and O’Brien’s shared self-nourishment on books and the words that spill from them - every word has an aura, it’s own texture, it’s own structure. Both writers clearly shared the feeling that ‘writing quivers you’ and the play echoes the herald of the time ‘that something tremendous was about to happen’ in the world of literature.
Enter Vita. Virginia’s love for the popular aristocrat and ‘scribbler’ Vita Sackville-West was also lasting despite the actual brevity of their famous love affair which has become iconic for generations of women-loving women.
And, despite the affair, lasting too was Virginia’s marriage to her publisher Leonard Woolf. Virginia’s ‘Mongoose’ was the central and solid core of her life though ultimately repeated ‘spoonfuls of arrowroot’ were not protective enough to save Virginia from her state of hopeless uncertainty and her ‘soft crevices lined with hooks’.
Opolski’s direction is adroit with easeful entrances and gentle pauses and a sound scape and lighting that skilfully evoke the times and the moods.
Heather Lythe as Virginia progresses in confidence through the title role from a beginning tentativeness of ‘sometimes I’m not Virginia at all’ to the more determined ‘if someone makes me vehement, I will marry them’, and finally the defiant ‘no, I won’t go, I’ll stay here and I’ll write about it, and that will be my victory’.
Lythe’s occupation of the character is moving in the tearful recollection of abuse, is delightful at her observations of the Tavistock Square set as ‘they settle themselves in corners’ and realises a fuller depth when ultimately ‘beneath is all dark, and it is spreading’.
O’Brien insisted that there be a cast of only three in this play with the second female actor playing both Vita and beloved sister Nessa and the male actor playing both Virginia’s father and her husband. Both Klein and Opitz as support actors weave and weft with Virginia and one trusts that any early tensions will ease and settle with further performances.
Virginia Woolf stands firm in our literary history claiming a strong voice for women when the world was largely all for men. Though she was afraid, she was beautiful in her courage to be herself, in times, not unlike now, that were threatening and rapidly changing.
Thank you to La Mama for bringing the O’Brien play to the stage again for new audiences. It’s exhilarating to be both peeper and looker at the full festival and the firelight that was Virginia Woolf.