We are loving vultures, as fascinated by the hand that holds the pen, the face behind the easel, as with the words and work those people produce. We can’t keep from picking, through letters and diaries, through the layers of the lives of this small group of friends and lovers who lived a century ago, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the person who once was, who once wept and lusted and dreamed and created.
Susan Sellers’ novel Vanessa and Virginia tells the story of the Stephen sisters – the girls who would become Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf – from the viewpoint of Vanessa, tracing their complex, entangled relationship from their earliest days in the nursery through to Virginia’s suicide.
It has been adapted for the stage by Woolf scholar Elizabeth Wright, who has pared down and sharpened the original text. The fragmented poetic structure of the novel remains, though the filter of Vanessa’s thoughts is less overt; Virginia is brought more clearly into focus as a character, as a presence – she is given shape and skin, a voice, though Vanessa still speaks the majority of the lines.
The resulting play is like a series of sketches with the other members of the Bloomsbury set pushed to the periphery. The sisters are both deeply needful of one another and also envious of the other’s successes; they know just where best to prick the other to draw blood. Emma Gersch’s production captures this sibling heat, the centrality of it to their well-being, their hunger for each other’s love. On the surface Vanessa appears to be the most stable one, less prone to collapse, less brittle – she is shocked by the ice of Virginia’s tongue, the unabashedly cruel way she speaks of Ottoline Morrell, with her “great beaky face – yet she was capable of deep passion and her lasting desire for the homosexual artist Duncan Grant is shown to be a potent, painful thing, a relationship which could never come to anything beyond friendship, though it would eventually result in the birth of a daughter.
The play shows how strong and necessary the bond between the sisters was. As children they were surrounded by death and loss, their family slowly shrinking. Their mother died when they were still small and a beloved older half-sister, Stella, followed soon afterwards; their brother Thoby would also die young. They had only each other to cling to. Another step-brother George was reputedly a predatory figure and their father was emotionally remote while at the same time needy and fretful, carping over the household accounts which he expected young Vanessa to manage on her own, until he too passed away and the girls were finally able to escape the oppressive Victorian atmosphere of their Kensington home and live as and how they wished. (Within reason of course, they couldn’t do without their servants).
There are times though when the production feels like it is ticking Bloomsbury boxes, with fleeting mentions of Vita, Carrington, Maynard Keynes, and Roger Fry. In fact there are chunks of the play that might prove difficult to unstitch without at least a passing knowledge of this world, its inhabitants, and the numerous ways in which they are interconnected. In its use of soliloquy the play can feel static at times and the drama is at its strongest when the two sisters are interacting, sparking off each other, alternatively vulnerably and hostile.
The staging takes its cues from the dreamlike structure of the play, fragmented, sing-songy and drifting. At the beginning the actors, Kitty Randle as Vanessa and Alice Frankham as Virginia, gambol across the stage like little girls before gradually letting down their skirts, throwing off their pinafores and growing up, becoming women. The occasional use of dance adds to this dreamlike feel, though this does start to feel repetitious after a while. The adaptation lifts nearly all of its words directly from the book and there are some phrases that, even though they sit easy on the page, don’t work as well when put in people’s mouths, (a description of Virginia’s eyes as “snake-green”, a reference to Grant’s “seed”) but again this is less jarring in the context of an aging Vanessa looking back at her life, penning her memories.
Kate Unwin’s set, a canopy of low-hanging objects – a parasol, a mirror, a fishing net – conveys something of the Charleston clutter of the artist’s studio, while Jeremy Thurlow’s original piano score echoes the undulations of the sisters’ relationship. Randle and Frankham age and fade subtly and convincingly. Vanessa would struggle to recover from the death of her son; Virginia couldn’t bear the thought of suffering another mental breakdown: their descent into a grief they could not save each other from is movingly conveyed.
The play presents its audience with a not altogether unfamiliar portrait of these two women, it doesn’t really challenge the image of them we have come to expect, not of Virginia anyway, she remains brilliant and difficult and magnificent and aloof; Vanessa on the other hand is allowed to emerge from behind that easel, and this is where the play’s real strength lies.