In an age of texts, Snapchats and voice messages, the letter is clearly a dying art form. There’s little doubt, at least in my mind, that this is a significant loss to us all, both personally and culturally; readers have long been fascinated by delving into the collected letters of their favourite writers, a scintillating insight into their lives matched only by diaries. But letters are designed to be read, not acted, and unfortunately this is a formal challenge that Vita and Virginia doesn’t quite manage to overcome.
Virginia Woolf and the prolific author and fellow Bloomsbury set-member Vita Sackville-West exchanged letters for the duration of their ten-year love affair; Eileen Atkins’ play weaves these letters together into an intriguing, if overlong, duologue between the two women. Sarah Taylor’s production wisely emphasises the conversational element of the letters: Virginia (Emmeline Downie) and Vita (Corinne Clark) make eye-contact across the stage, as if they are in the same room, giddily reciting their letters to each other in a flush of flirtatious excitement.
The opening scenes work well in this regard, effectively and humorously capturing an affair in its first heady throes, its two protagonists gripped by a sense of awe and fear simultaneously. As a tableau of two great writers in their prime, it is an excellent opening. Downie is an exquisite Woolf, witty and sharp, yet somehow wonderfully awkward; her comic background is clear here in her accomplished delivery of Virginia’s many one-liners. Clark also gives a commendable opening performance, perfecting the society drawl and the bemused arched eyebrow. Her lounging style, however, does somewhat give off the (false) impression that Sackville-West was more lady of leisure than best-selling writer.
The problem with this production is that, for much of its duration, it remains at this level of conversational flirtatiousness. There is little sense of the relationship’s progression until just before the end. The letters, of course, do not narrate the couple’s meetings, so it is left to the actors to tell this story in their bodies, their faces, their eyes. Yet there is little of this in Taylor’s production. There was little sense of when the affair actually began, of when it ended, of the longing, the eroticism or the tension in the two women’s relationship. It was almost as if the two were in fact just very good companions, for it was clear from Downie and Clark’s performances that Vita and Virginia certainly found each other amusing and interesting correspondents.
Then, all of a sudden, in the closing moments of the play, there was a passion in their relationship, Woolf’s jealousy of Sackville-West’s other lovers captured amusingly by Downie in a self-consciously infuriated speech. Clark’s performance in the last scene was particularly affecting, turning lines from Woolf’s Orlando into a poem, savouring perfectly her lover’s words, the last things she had left of her. Unfortunately, a few dynamic moments were not enough to revitalise a largely static production.
The components of a great performance were there. What was missing was the progression between them, the sense of going on a journey with these two characters through a tender, enriching, healing relationship. Instead, we were left with an extended dramatic reading of their letters; some witty barbs, a collection of travel anecdotes and a hint of a lovers’ tiff, but nothing that lifted this production from reading the letters to really living them.