“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” These words open Virginia Woolf’s novel, as they do Septimus and Clarissa, the stunning dramatic adaptation of Mrs. Dalloway now at the Baruch Performing Arts Center until October 8th. An ambitious project with a lyrical script by the playwright and actress Ellen McLaughlin, and inspired direction by Rachel Dickstein, the production is brought to life by a wonderful ensemble of actors/dancers and designers, as well as an original score by Gina Leishman. Two years in the making, the Brooklyn-based Ripe Time theater group’s production is a theatrical experience not to be missed.
Yet I approached the play as I do all Woolf adaptations: with hopefulness and fear. Mrs. Dalloway, the novel from which the play is adapted, was an experiment. Dissatisfied with the form of fiction then in vogue, Woolf invented a new way of narrating not only what people say (said, spoke), but what they don’t say (think, reflect, feel), and often without the tags or traditional use of quotation marks. Using this method, she traces the party consciousness of the perfect hostess, middle-aged Clarissa Dalloway, as well as the terror of her double, traumatized war veteran Septimus Smith. All this is wrapped in the rhythms of the city of London on a beautiful day in June 1923, six years after the end of the World War I.
The play has social relevance. Not only because Septimus’s post-traumatic stress compares with our wounded soldiers from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, but also because of the lack, or kind, of psychiatric and medical attention that Septimus receives. Woolf aimed to critique the British social system in presenting Doctors Bradshaw and Holmes, and we experience Septimus’s exasperation with them as they “name” and dismiss his illness. They pay no attention to the brutality of his experiences—and the million casualties of young men in what some called “the obscene war”—and the devastating loss of his best friend, Evans. Woolf particularly satirizes Dr. William Bradshaw of Harley St., an “obscurely evil” specialist who reduces Septimus to a “case” and wants to shut him up in a home; and she mocks the foolish Holmes who tries to convince Septimus that he’s not ill at all, advising him to play golf and take a few bromides. Woolf indicts society’s treatment of the patriot who served his country. Coping with her own mental illness throughout her life, perhaps Woolf is also expressing here her own frustration with various treatments. Her familiarity with the language of the profession leads her to challenge its description of Septimus with her own way of speaking about the anguish of his war experience and loss. She evokes the poignancy of his isolation in pairing him with his loving, uncomprehending Italian wife, Rezia, played affectingly by Miriam Silverman.
There is, however, a challenge in the dramatization of this novel. How do you find the visual, physical, and musical equivalents for interiority, for the whirl of mind and language in Woolf’s book? And how do you tame these minds to bodies that drift in and out of different kinds of realities and from past to present and back again? Woolf says in her Diary of Mrs. Dalloway that she dug out “beautiful caves behind her characters” and revealed their past in installments. And it is with this pattern that Septimus and Clarissa proceeds, perhaps in a bewildering fashion, at times, depending on one’s familiarity with the novel.
The staging is an attempt to grasp Woolf’s interiority: the simple, stark set by Susan Zeeman Rogers captures the different realities at play in Woolf’s novel, avoiding realistic representation. Mrs. Dalloway, acted by Ellen McLaughlin, opens the play, in a dazzling red dress standing on top of a staircase rotated by the nine other actors, and Septimus, terrorized, holds on tight below. This turning takes us inward to her reflections—on her party that evening, on youth, on life, on death—an important dimension to her seemingly frivolous character and party thoughts of the day. It is here on this staircase, the centerpiece of the stage, that the “moments” of the play happen: where Clarissa calls out “Remember my party tonight,” and also, in a shift of scene, the platform from which Septimus leaps to his death elongated in a film noir shadow. Throughout the play, large white frames appear: some, high against the wall, open into interiors; others, moving, frame past moments such as Clarissa at 18 at her country house at Bourton; or frames tilt in a mad fashion to represent the turmoil of thoughts that cannot be framed. Sometimes small white model dollhouses move onto the stage with brightly lit party rooms—echoes of Ibsen—as we watch Mrs. Dalloway perform, the perfect hostess at her party, and sense her dark undercurrents. Lovely glass chandeliers also appear in time for her party and illuminate the social chatter of the evening. London and the social setting of the party are de-materialized into a few props, and the production astutely highlights instead points of social consciousness and conversation in the city, as Woolf does in the novel. But how do you dramatize, as Ellen McLaughlin notes, the simultaneity in Woolf’s or any modernist text—both the seen and unseen parts of a person or the consciousness of people beneath the dart-like surface of daily life? In this production, selves are sometimes split into two characters, and we experience the aging reflective socialite, Mrs. Dalloway, through the inspired acting of Ellen McLaughlin (of Angels in America repute), and then young Clarissa, played vibrantly by LeeAnne Hutchison; Craig Baldwin captures the young, enticing Peter Walsh in the past, and Tom Nelis shines as the aging, mocking Peter who somehow remains “younger than any of them.”
I think back again to my reading of Mrs. Dalloway. How would actual actors fit into my experience of the novel? Clarissa is just sketched in the book, scattered images of her body and clothing surface, and hardly a face. What does she look like? We know that she sleeps alone on a narrow bed like a nun—suggesting her thinness and recent illness without Woolf ever saying it. There’s slight mention of her clothing: she wears pink gauze as a girl, and a sea-green dress to the party. This latter dress is boldly and abstractly presented in Ripe Time’s production, thereby taking on the risks of Woolf’s experiment. We see the dress, yards and yards of billowing green silk breaking like a wave across the stage—as if tumbling out of an abstract Noh play. Since Woolf is interested not in how people look or what they say but rather what they think and feel, a fully-clothed, realistic character would be, to me, beside the point.
And yet, I was won over by this production. One of the surprises of this theatrical evening is the dance of body and mind. Harvena Richter, one of Woolf’s early critics, asserts that Woolf introduced us to new rhythms in the body ego in character for the first time in fiction. Septimus and Clarissa is sensitive to this physicality. The actor/dancers convey the sensation of Woolf’s sentences in a choreography of mind and body. Clarissa and Peter in the rush of young love turn into whirling dervishes reeling across the stage together; Septimus’s “thunderclaps of fear” are heard in his solo whirl enhanced by ominous music; young Clarissa expresses the girlish enthusiasm of her flirtation with Sally Seton in the swoon of her kiss as “the whole world turned upside down.” We also hear the rune, “ee um fah um so,” of the poor beggar woman in Regents Park: her song a trace of impoverished London after the war and part of Gina Leishman’s haunting score for the play. We also sense the body of Richard, Clarissa’s husband, a member of the House of Commons, buttoned up and controlled in his movements, reflecting the decency, propriety, and inhibition of his character. All of the actors are also dancers, and perfectly choreographed to express mind and feeling by Rachel Dickstein, whose experience as Assistant Director to Martha Clarke’s dance troupe shines here.
Ellen McLaughlin, the accomplished shaper of this play, pens in the program notes that as one reads the novel, “one hears music and sees the dance of the city”—a phenomenon that is captured in the production. In the past, Woolf adaptations have been largely one or two-woman shows such as Eileen Atkin’s A Room of One’s Own, narrated as the Newnham College lecture upon which it was based; and Vita and Virginia, an epistolary dialogue through the gifted interpretations of Atkins and Vanessa Redgrave; or the recent Women’s Project production of Room, acted by Ellen Lauren; and the Marleen Gorris movie, Mrs. Dalloway, a realistic interpretation of the novel. Against this theatrical history, Septimus and Clarissa takes greater theatrical risks.
We are, in the end, left with irresolution and large questions about life, and the injuries of class and war, as both Clarissa and Septimus ask, “What makes us go on?” Septimus doesn’t, and Clarissa hears from the wife of Dr. Bradshaw of the very sad case of a young man who had killed himself that evening. “Oh! Thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought,” confirming her earlier feeling “that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.” But the play ends on a note of life as Clarissa celebrates her party, her life, and her moment. Peter Walsh looks up at her as she stands on the staircase: “What is this terror? What is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was.”
Ripe Time’s Septimus and Clarissa runs through October 8th at Baruch Performing Arts Center (55 Lexington Avenue, Manhattan). Tickets: $40 general, $20 students, at www.ripetime.org or 866-811-4111.
PATRICIA LAURENCE is a writer and critic who teaches in the MA Program at Brooklyn College. She is a specialist in Modernism and Virginia Woolf, and is presently working on a biography of Elizabeth Bowen.