The best aspect of Virginia Woolf’s celebrated 1929 essay is not its oft-quoted declaration that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. Despite being as true now as it was then the delight to be found in A Room Of One’s Own is less in its ends, or declarations, and more in Woolf’s perambulating journey towards them.
“I am going to develop in your presence as fully and freely as I can the train of thought which led me to [this opinion],” she wrote. Only her thoughts are nothing like a train. They seem spun before us as we read, materialising like the dewy lacework of a spiderweb at dawn, and relayed with such immediacy that you are taken into her whirring mind on that October day in London when “the river reflected whatever it chose of sky and bridge and burning tree”.
This is the essay’s primary joy. Its secondary joy – and one magnified by this two-woman production with Anita Hegh (Woolf) and Ella Prince (various) directed by Carissa Licciardello and based on an adaptation by Licciardello and Tom Wright – is how wickedly funny it is. If Hegh’s lines are this funny on opening night, you marvel, by mid-season it will be a wine-snorting situation. Don’t worry, masks are mandatory.
We know they are, because Belvoir’s artistic director Eamon Flack tells us in a rare pre-show speech. He is marking Sydney’s first mainstage play since lockdown, performed to a maximum audience of 120. “I never thought I’d be so happy to see the theatre a third full,” Flack says.
The set and the costumes (David Fleischer) are minimal to the point of puritan. Woolf wears a billowing blouse and culottes in shades of charcoal and true black, her hair scraped back. A spindly black chair and a black book are the only props; the book doubles as the many texts Woolf critiques.
And then, there is the perspex box. Mostly it is dark as Woolf monologues, only to flare briefly into a mini mise en scene, starring Prince, and cued by certain lines. Woolf stares into the box too, as if it’s a memory made manifest or a premonition that haunts her. Ambient sound (Paul Charlier) wafts in when the box lights up and wafts off when it dims. Thus, in the easy way that sound has with us, we feel something. Only we don’t know what or why.
Variously, we see Prince striking a match on a rolled cigarette. Prince with her back turned in a Victorian-era dress, perhaps playing poet Lady Winchilsea who “suffered terribly from melancholy”. Prince prone in a bed of roses. The tableaus are morose or macabre, bar one – the one we can better understand. Prince in modern times: jeans, a laptop, on her back reading a draft. Alone. Plagues aside, this is how Woolf and women like her would have flourished in 2020, the scene wordlessly states.
Earlier, Flack tells us rehearsals began in March. “Anita has been holding this play in her mind and her heart and her body for six months,” he says. It shows. While she speaks in what you imagine is Woolf’s voice – searingly intelligent, acerbic and often angry – she doesn’t “play” Woolf. Not exactly. Rather she plays the voice in Woolf’s mind that was channelled into the service of this influential feminist essay. Subtle yes, but a nuance of performance you know Woolf would have appreciated.
As she would, no doubt, Licciardello and Wright’s adaptation of her essay. At 75 swiftly-passing minutes, this is the version of Room Of One’s Own that ardent Woolf fans should present to the Woolf neophytes of the TL;DR generation. It’s the radio edit with all ramblings boiled off to the sticky concentrate of the essay’s greatest hits. In truth, I’m not sure what lingo applies to Licciardello and Wright’s achievement with the red pen here. An adaptation but perhaps also an abridged version you could enjoy equally offstage.
To close, let’s return to the fun and the fury, as Woolf always does. And let’s put it plainly. The bullseye of both was men. “For Alan had views,” she writes of a fictional male and female couple, “and Phoebe was quenched in the flood of his views.” Of Alan’s views, Woolf says this: “But why was I bored? Partly because of the dominance of the letter ‘I’ and the aridity, which, like the giant beech tree, it casts within its shade. Nothing will grow there.” Acid splashes right up the black walls when these lines are uttered tonight. It’s wonderful.
Rereading the essay in 2020 – or better yet, seeing this play – you may find the origins of the Bechdel test, of gender flipping and of the need for women to critique women’s art. But there’s something else too, something even more topical. In the wake of the suffragette movement – “a few women in black bonnets”, she writes – Woolf triaged men’s hostility as fear at losing their privilege, pure and simple.
You see, Virginia Woolf loathed pompous, entitled men – who doesn’t? – and was an absolute ace at belittling them. But it was nothing personal. She understood men’s worst qualities were both inherent and inherited from the long line of pompous, entitled men that had come before them.