Mrs. Dalloway – Arcola Theatre, London

Writer: Hal Coase

Director: Thomas Bailey

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

It’s certainly a striking piece. Mrs. Dalloway challenges the notion of defined characters as well as the split between performance and reality with actors and their audiences. Different actors take different lines of a character’s monologue turning it to narration, genders swap, we switch from subject to object and all around before coming back again. It’s a play that stretches its mechanics and it’s fascinating.

As a vehicle for this writing exercise, we’re looking at two (main) stories running on a convergent path through a single London day. Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway (wife of Richard, someone important in the Government) is preparing for a party in the evening, so spends time in town buying flowers, talking to servants about preparations, and meeting an old friend (and spurned suitor) Peter Walsh who brings forth much thoughts about her life and her place in the world.

Elsewhere, Septimus Warren Smith is suffering from hallucinations as a result of his WWI experiences, and his wife accompanies him to Dr. Bradshaw’s where he’s ordered to a Surrey rest home. The two worlds are used to build a rich quilt of English internal and public life, allowing the audience to see and hear thoughts, histories and fears as the characters progress. They converge at the party, where Dr. Bradshaw tells the other guests of Septimus’ suicide that afternoon as an excuse why he’s late to the function.

There’s a very fine line through the text between flighty, evocative language and pretension. Once or twice it’s crossed, possibly within one of the lengthy narrative poem style group speeches. Overall, however, it’s genuinely accessible. The exploration of character as well as the ruminations about British society is clear, and we’re able to build a rapport with some of the key identified characters as they go. Managing to explode and yet contain the characters is a neat trick to pull off.

Strident presentation of the work was key to creating an intriguing and provocative piece. As Mrs. Dalloway herself, Clare Perkins bolstered the cast with a gravity that gave a lot more depth to a society wife than expected, really enriching the play and ensuring it never got too abstract. Emma D’Arcy as Septimus’ wife Lucrezia and other characters darted through the piece, offering pointed and sharp lines and movements that brought energy and pace to everything.

It can’t claim to be a play for the traditionalists. There’s abstraction, some surreal parts and, in honesty, some overwrought writing. But it’s understandable, quick, witty and enjoyably interprets not only Virginia Woolf’s ideas on character but her observations on English life.

Runs until 20 October 2018 | Image: Contributed

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