Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway is, like much of her work, more interested in the complexities of the human individual than in the intricacies of plot. The novel, and Hal Coase and Forward Arena’s adaptation are simply set-up: over one day in London, Clarissa Dalloway, society hostess, prepares to throw a party, while a shell-shocked WWI veteran, Septimus Warren Smith, wrestles with trauma and the idea of suicide. Septimus and Clarissa’s states of mind, their memories and their feelings are fluidly brought out to meet us through the talents of five actors, in a piece that weaves past and present with contemporary and period, and crosses realism with dreamlike action.
The adaptation’s attempt, as Coase notes in the programme, to ask the question: ‘What does it mean to form a character?’, is bound to be difficult, and involve a fair share of the cerebral. The production bases its faith firmly in the power of words: dialogue, monologue, text. This is unsurprising given its source material, and this is both a strength and sometimes a handicap.
Thomas Bailey’s direction is sure and fluid, but a more adventurous physical approach might have taken some of the pressure off both the actors and the audience. There is a little too much reliance on the text, so that occasionally a continuous disquisition on the past or on a particular character’s mental state would begin fraying the attention. A desire not to become too abstract in dealing with Woolf’s already abstracted work is understandable, but a little more playfulness might have helped make the piece feel more immediate and easily relatable.
However, no one could accuse Mrs Dalloway of moving sluggishly or of droning on. The cast is dedicated, quick and together, lending their characters a strong sense of period mores with a slight swish of modern irony. Scenes and character transitions melt into each other seamlessly, imitating the dreamlike element of waking consciousness. There is a sense of inevitability to the flow of events that perfectly mimic the unpredictable unfolding of a day; Tom Stafford’s subtle sound and musical effects are an often-hypnotic presence underpinning Clarissa or Septimus’ flashbacks or internal conversations.
There are touches, related to the question of physical/text-based theatre, which left me wishing for a little more theatrical inventiveness to match the invention that Woolf achieved at the time. The play’s opening is a promising deconstruction of actor/audience and actor/character, with Moody and D’Arcy both greeting the audience as their own actorly, ‘real-person’ selves. A lectern placed centrally with a microphone adds to this knowing artifice. All these initial gestures are, of course, related to Coase’s focus on the ‘invention’ of a person’s unknowable self by others, but are left mostly unexplored after the initial scene, at least in terms of the actor/audience relationship. This is disappointing, as some bleeding between meta and reality (the nicely effective ‘panel’ set-up used in the dinner party scene, or the use of mobiles and tape recorders) works well for props and set. The simplicity and sparseness of the set works as well, with a simple blue canvas shifting shades to represent the inevitable passing of the day.
These criticisms are certainly dwarfed by what is good and interesting about Arcola’s Mrs Dalloway. They are only due to there being such potential for intense theatricality in a treatment of Woolf’s interest in the mysteries of what makes a person ‘a person’. This sometimes feels lacking, but all aspects of the production are in sync and well-thought-out, leaving a rich and complex experience of the mind of people and their motivations – which is enough to ask for in one evening.
Mrs Dalloway is playing Arcola Theatre until 20 October. For more information and tickets, click here.