Adaptation isn’t easy. The decision to shape a text for another medium, whether film, drama, music or art, should not be taken lightly, particularly when the source material does not lend itself to easy interpretation, or even easy reading.
So when it was announced that Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’ would be performed as a stage play, I can admit to feeling some trepidation. The novel, as typical of Woolf’s writing, toys with time, memory, and narrative voice, and explores the outer and inner lives of Clarissa Dalloway, a society woman of the 1920s, and her colourful cast of friends and acquaintances.
Luckily then, Mrs Dalloway succeeds not only as an adaptation of a great work, but also as an artful expansion of the world its characters occupy. While the play is faithful to the novel, using clever staging and technical flair to show shifts in chronology and perspective, adaptor Hal Coase and director Thomas Bailey skilfully and accessibly get to the heart of what the story is about.
Set over the course of a day in June, the story follows Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares for a party. The novel but does this in a highly unconventional way – exploring not only her memories and inner thoughts but those of the people around her, from a precocious daughter, an alienated husband, secret love interests, pompous friends, and a disturbed veteran of the First World War.
The novel explores post-war anxieties, psychology and mental illness, existential questions of life and death, but ultimately the reality of being an older woman in a time full of liberating promises, yet still held back by the darkness and destruction of its recent history. These aren’t easy topics to stage, particularly in a narrative that relies so much on jumping between times and characters, but the play does so magnificently – making Woolf’s story accessible without compromising its structural or emotional complexity.
The performances are superb. Clare Perkins brings both grace and wit to Clarissa, embodying the kind of charisma and sardonic humour one imagines a necessity of high-society women of her time. Equally impressive is Emma D’Arcy who has the unenviable task of playing both her free-spirited daughter Elizabeth and Italian Lucrezia Smith, who is at wit’s end by her marriage to Septimus, for whom the horrors of war are still present, and convincingly, hauntingly realised by Guy Rhys. Clare Lawrence Moody and Sean Jackson also deserve credit for their portrayals of Sally and Peter, two of Clarissa’s old friends and (to differing degrees) love interests, who bring levity to the production, but also help to bring Clarissa’s upper-class world to life.
Mrs Dalloway has an unconventional narrative structure even now – a near-century since its publication. However, through a combination of smart directing, design, and technical skill, transitions between time and voice are handled effectively and clearly.
Changes in lighting, movement of actors between fore and background, and small touches such as speaking into walkie-talkies help delineate what is being spoken and what is being remembered or thought. Designer Emma D’Arcy, as well as sound and lighting designers Tom Stafford and Joe Price (respectively) deserve special mentions for creating an immersive and coherent world, inhabited by characters that are brought to life by the exquisite period costuming of Louie Whitemore.
Mrs Dalloway will not be for everyone, and certainly not those who desire straight-forward stories of beginning, middle, and end. But beyond fans of Virginia Woolf, the play truly has a lot to offer. If you are interested in evocative, experimental theatre that challenges and excites in equal measure, this is the show for you.
Mrs Dalloway is showing at Arcola Theatre from 25 September to 20 October.
Tickets available here.