Vita & Virginia (Abridged), presented by New Kinver Players, is a 50-minute play tracing the twenty-year relationship between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolfe, both members of the ‘Bloomsbury Set’ of 1920s London.
The play uses the words of correspondence between Woolf and Sackville-West, and is itself abridged from a previous dramatisation of their letters.
Emma Francis plays Vita, the younger of the two women by a decade. Francis imbues a sense of almost impishness into Vita’s words. Sackville-West was a poet, and her lyrical writing style is apparent even within these personal letters.
Ruth Cattell as Virginia is more measured, more reserved, and more cautious in her correspondence. This is perhaps a surprise, given Woolf’s reputation for her stream-of-consciousness writing style. For this piece of theatre it creates a compelling contrast between the two women.
The two begin their written relationship in exceedingly formal terms, reminiscent of the times. Both women were married, and so it is ‘Mrs Woolf’ and ‘Lady Nicolson’ who first write to each other.
As the friendship develops, the letters become more informal in tone. The two women’s respective diary entries add to the narrative, revealing inner thoughts and secret desires not otherwise apparent from the careful, witty sparring within their correspondence.
As we see their growing closeness, we also learn more about their respective careers. It’s illuminating to understand how these two women were pursuing their own successes, in a period when, we are repeatedly told, women did not work and did not have a role outside of being a wife and mother.
Whereas Vita is forthright about how she wants their relationship to develop, Virginia remains more circumspect, at least on paper.
Still, some passion is apparent, even from the cautious words they do use. In one scene Vita speaks the words ‘I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal’. It’s romantic, and intimate, and also feels utterly tragic.
Presented with minimal staging, the two actors respond to each other’s words, but never make eye contact. For much of the piece, they aren’t even facing each other. The points where they do occupy the same area of performance space become even more charged.
Woolf and Sackville-West were writing in the early decades of the twentieth century, and some of the language is of the time, especially Vita’s descriptions of the people she notices during her time in Tehran.
This is an immensely intimate, compelling, and tender story tracing the beginning, middle, and tragic end of an intense romantic relationship. Highly recommended.
Vita and Virginia continues at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 12th August
Featured Image credit: New Kinver Players