Eileen Atkins’ play about Vita (Sackville-West) and Virginia (Woolf) is based on letters written by these two women over the nearly twenty years that they knew each other. I remember a television play about these two some years ago: in that, Virginia had seemed to be the stronger character. Here however, Vita’s letters reveal her strong, passionate personality and her affairs with several women while Virginia seems the more reserved of the two.
They are obviously deeply attached to each other; they send each other their poetry and novels and Virginia based the character of Orlando on Vita. Their letters are very frank about their love affairs, but also of the love that each woman feels for her husband. Vita follows her diplomat husband around the world; Virginia and Leonard Woolf have a suicide pact, should Hitler invade England. When they go away together, they spend a lot of time writing to their husbands.
There are only two actors in this play and very little action: the two performers consequently have to be excellent and, in Helen Taylor and Ida Persson, eleven one theatre has two very talented actors. For almost two hours, they portray these two very different personalities, holding the audience through the emotion in their voices and the passion that comes through these letters.
I gather that not a single change can be made to the text without consulting Eileen Atkins, who created the play from their letters – and she will say no! Letters do not always have the coherency of a normal play. Nevertheless the words that these women wrote in their letters give this play a vibrancy and intimacy that is very moving and the setting, Lady Margaret Hall’s Old Library, is particularly apt. Do go.