Review: Mrs Dalloway at Arcola Theatre

Image courtesy of Arcola Theatre (2018).

Image courtesy of Arcola Theatre (2018).

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.

Photo courtesy of the Press Association.

Photo courtesy of the Press Association.

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.

London in June 1922. Photo courtesy of the Old Pics Archive.

London in June 1922. Photo courtesy of the Old Pics Archive.

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.

Review: Emilia at Shakespeare's Globe

Photo courtesy of Helen Murray (2018)

Photo courtesy of Helen Murray (2018)

It’s a strange thing, watching history. But that’s exactly what the final performance of Emilia felt like, standing in the yard of Shakespeare’s Globe while the cheers rang out for encore after encore, all tears and hugs and a feeling, distinct and yet somehow universally shared among the assembled, some of whom had returned for third, fourth, and even fifth viewings. A feeling that something had happened, or rather, was about to begin.

I am not equipped to articulate the significance of this play. Neither am I equipped to articulate the significance of what it might mean for women, people of colour, the differently-abled and, more generally, the marginalised voices of history. Far better (and more capable) writers than I have already done so. Besides, one need not look very far for these opinions – just search #Emilia on Twitter. What I can do however, is articulate how well Emilia succeeds as a play, a performance, and a production. And reader, Emilia exceeded in all three.

Emilia Lanier (née Bassano) was a poet of the Elizabethan era, the first Englishwoman to publish as such, and a possible inspiration (or originator) for Shakespeare’s work – namely as the ‘dark lady’ of his sonnets with dun skin and black hair. Written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and under the direction of Nicole Charles, the play tells Emilia’s story and struggle to assert herself as an artist and woman, and does so with heart and humour, passion and purpose, and endless, joyous invention.

Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s script perfectly captures the language of the time for a modern audience, making excellent use of period detail and gleefully knowing, anachronistic humour. Despite its historic setting, the play is freshly relevant to our times, not least for its subtle yet effective discussions of immigration, race, and female agency. In relating the past to the present day, the play smartly and subversively questions how far we really have advanced as a society when such issues remain unsolved.

Photo courtesy of Helen Murray (2018)

Photo courtesy of Helen Murray (2018)

The ensemble cast are a delight to behold. The performers bring life to a vast array of personalities both tragic and comic, from dedicated heroines (Leah Harvey, Vinette Robinson, Clare Perkins), courtiers both sleazy and affected (Shiloh Coke, Carolyn Pickles, Sophie Russell, Amanda Wilkin) and of course, Shakespeare himself (Charity Wakefield), wonderfully imagined here as an insufferably self-important oaf. 

Why heroines and not heroine? Well, there are three Emilias in the play, all representing various stages and ages of the poet’s life. To use three people to play one character (often simultaneously) could easily be awkward and confusing. However, Nicole Charles’s creative direction blends the performances seamlessly. We are not just watching Emilia at different stages of her life but also Emilia in different states of mind – the determined, the despairing, and the defiant – and sometimes all at the same time.

Credit must also be paid to the production team for creating a world of sound and colour that feels both imminently real yet undeniably magical. The music, as composed by Bill Barclay and performed by Elinor Chambers, Calie Hough, Sarah Humphrys and Sharon Lindo, evokes the time and place yet carries with it mystery and promise befitting Emilia’s tale, while Joanna Scotcher’s costuming is exquisite and charming, with meticulous attention to detail.

One of the real stars of the show is Scotcher’s set. The design conjures images of an enchanted library, a sacred space of learning and actualisation so often denied to women throughout history and completed here with a circular portal that could well represent an opening to the world of the past, the mind, and maybe even the future – one in which women might be truly free to create, to love, and to be.

Emilia is not history rewritten, but history relived. The play is the rarest of achievements, a work that serves as more than its writer, director, cast and crew. Emilia sings, shouts, and screams with the voices of generations stretching back into the past and outward into the future – an echo through time, and a call forward, forward, forward.