The Arcola Theatre and Forward Arena’s Mrs Dalloway opens with a short preamble in which it seems as if the actors are workshopping before us just how one might go about adapting something like this. “Shall I go and get her?” one of them asks. It’s as if they’re sizing up what they’re about to do.
Then she comes out, and very soon it becomes apparent that the task couldn’t have been taken on in any other way. Virginia Woolf’s slim, dense and irrepressible novel has an adaptation here which matches it in those qualities. It inches towards the party thrown at its end, following the lives of characters who meet and who don’t, and it never leaves you behind for a second. Actors overlap each other and share lines, as you might expect, but Thomas Bailey’s production shows itself to be playful and efficient in more surprising ways.
As Clarissa Dalloway, Clare Perkins steels herself to be upright and hold herself together as memory keeps making itself felt. In a tiny, sweet moment, she examines her face and tries to turn the mirror to show us the strange pointedness she sees in it, and of course we can’t. In such a simple movement, the production captures that awful subjectivity preventing us from reading the characters of others. Other choices are just as sympathetic, such as having all three of the cast’s women onstage and taking part in Clarissa’s remembrance of her adolescent feelings for her friend Sally; it feels somehow respectful to both the text and to Woolf to give enough space to this great romantic love of her life.
Hal Coase’s adaptation has to sacrifice a few of the many strands of Woolf’s text, of course, but it still feels as if it shares the same way of thinking. Attempts are made by the characters to get across what it is they mean, exactly, and we recognise ourselves in their self-castigating, censorship and judgement of others. Clare Lawrence Moody runs onstage and crouches down as she cries out “Thank you for liking me!” to the maid, as what Clarissa wishes she could say. She looks physically restrained from going any further, and can’t be heard; Clarissa dismisses the maid and does not say this to her.
The tiny cast is near-impeccable. As Septimus, Guy Rhys’ face comes alive as he looks up at the aeroplane overhead, trying to pick up what it signals to him without words. Emma D’Arcy is a powerhouse in several roles, turning on a coin: as Septimus’ Italian wife Rezia, her face becomes red and blotchy with concern, and as soon as she’s Clarissa’s sullen, quick-speaking daughter Elizabeth we laugh before she even speaks.
The constant coming and going of the actors perfectly fits the washing of characters in and out of the narrative and each other’s awareness. The use of props (such as a chocolate eclair) to indicate when characters are addressing each other or themselves is inventive, though the wooden structure for set at the back of the stage is less so: it holds the blue canvas of sky, later joined by a sunset version, but the actors never interact with it.
The lighting is equally inventive: a fluorescent strip snaps on when Septimus recalls his horrific doctor Holmes or sometimes when he sees his late friend from the army, Evans, reminding him that “The dead are waiting in Thessaly!” As a motorcar races past the characters for a second the actors stand still and the lights flash dizzyingly around their heads as they look. It’s hard to imagine a grander stage or a larger budget helping this production to suit a space better than it does the Arcola’s Studio.
Though it’s always busy enough, running at a word-heavy hour and forty minutes might call for a little more streamlining for some. Mrs Dalloway largely slips by, however, and by the time Clarissa re-enters her party to abruptly end the play, we’ve been transported.
Mrs Dalloway is on at Arcola Theatre until 20th October. Book tickets here.