Professor Susan Sellers reflects on the forthcoming London run of the play Vanessa and Virginia, adapted from her novel by St Andrews alumna Dr Elizabeth Wright
Writer Sebastian Faulks once remarked that turning a novel into a play is like turning a painting into a sculpture. I don’t know if this metaphor is an accurate description of the process, but seeing my novel Vanessa and Virginia adapted for the stage has been a fascinating experience.
I wrote Vanessa and Virginia (a fictionalised account of the intense and sometimes turbulent relationship between Virginia Woolf and her artist sister Vanessa Bell) while editing a scholarly edition of Woolf’s writing for Cambridge University Press. The novel was first published by a Scottish literary independent Two Ravens Press, and has gone on to sell to America, France, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, Russia, Poland, Brazil, Lithuania, Portugal, China, Korea and Japan.
Vanessa and Virginia was adapted for the stage by Dr Elizabeth Wright, and the first thing that struck me about her script was its shortness. The novel is about 70,000 words long, the play less than 10,000 – and some of these are stage directions! Anything not absolutely essential to the central story of the two women had to be cut for the play. I was very fortunate to have Elizabeth as the book’s adaptor. Not only is she a highly talented theatre writer, she also completed a PhD on Virginia Woolf at St Andrews.
I was invited by the play’s director Emma Gersch, from award-winning Moving Stories Theatre, to assist the two actors cast as Vanessa and Virginia with their research. Since the story progresses from the sisters’ childhood into old age, the first thing we did was prepare a timeline consisting of dates, facts, quotes and images which the actors pinned up round the rehearsal room. It was riveting to watch how the actors built up the characters of the two women and decided with the director how all the different elements of the play should be staged.
The design was given to the hugely gifted Kate Unwin (credits include the extraordinary Metro-Boulot-Dodo at London’s National Theatre), who drew on the fact that Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell was a painter. Since this was initially a touring production, a slide show of images based on Bell’s artwork was created, and Kate also grouped the various props the actors use in a semicircle round the edge of each performance space – as if they are the pools of colour on a palette.
There is original music in the play, created during rehearsal by the Cambridge-based composer Dr Jeremy Thurlow. Jeremy has a St Andrews connection too – he is currently our external examiner for various music modules run by the Music Centre under the direction of Dr Michael Downes. The music for the play is not only hauntingly beautiful, it also serves an important function in helping the actors mark the transitions between timeshifts.
After performances across the UK (including St Andrews), and in France, Germany and Poland, the play of Vanessa and Virginia is currently back in rehearsal for a London run at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, from 26 March until 14 April 2013. The play is being redesigned for the more permanent space of the Riverside – and I for one can’t wait to see it!
Photos by James Glossop (the Times) at the Byre Theatre