Home Arts & Lit Reviews Review: Theatre With Teeth’s WOOLF @ Exeter and Devon Institution

Review: Theatre With Teeth’s WOOLF @ Exeter and Devon Institution

Ellie Cook reflects on the preview show for Theatre With Teeth's WOOLF, inspired by the life of the modernist icon Virginia Woolf.


Walking into the production, we were advised this show was unfinished and a work in progress. Only forty minutes long, it was not the carbon copy of what will be lauded at this year’s Fringe. It was an intimate setting, nestled in the arms of a plush library, instantly tinted with greater reality and authenticity, than perhaps a stage could manage.

From the outset, it is plain that Virginia Woolf-in this interpretation- is inextricable from her writing. This preview show was snuggled into the charming library of the Exeter and Devon Institution, where the audience sat on an eclectic smattering of velvet armchairs and wooden seats; the entire setting wallpapered what appeared to be the imagined brain of the eponymous character. Even as the character of Woolf is told that she ‘can’t spend [her] life in this library’, it is glaringly obvious that her life, her mind, is this library.

With this in mind, books as physical theatre played almost as big a part in this production as some of the characters. Books are not just the backdrop and subject matter, but they fluttered in the shape of seagulls and quite literally were the rhythm to this Virginia’s life, being beaten like drums in one scene. Amidst the memories of ‘Virginia’ is the chaotic overlap of books that the character chases around in her own mind. This cultivated sense of internal pandemonium was an intriguing spectacle, and one that made Virginia seem more real as a person, rather than just a somewhat untouchable author.

Leonard Woolf’s portrayal also served the function of pulling Virginia Woolf from the pedestal that she is so often associated with. He presented the audience with an intimate view of her flaws; that she exists only in ‘extremes’ and makes herself ‘miserable’ with ‘constant comparisons.’ This was a jarring reminder that Virginia was indeed a fallible human being. It may sound ludicrous, but I cannot believe I’m the only person to be lured into this nearsightedness of forgetting that Virginia Woolf actually lived a life, rather than merely being a recurring name in modernist literature. This production, more than anything else, humanizes the lofty figure of Virginia Woolf; she gets lost in her own childhood memories in a way that endears her character to the audience. It was this that I found to be the most riveting aspect of this production, particularly as exposing her human flaws and intricacies of her personality did not come at the price of detracting from the value of her writing.

The last line definitely contains a certain amount of poignancy; ‘I meant to write about death, but life came breaking in as usual.’  This play, after all, is constructed around the life of a dead woman. However, the details of her life that come seeping through make a semi-mythical figure such as Virginia Woolf seem that little bit more alive. To a literary aficionado, this may be an imaginative portrayal of the life of an icon; for an audience member with very limited knowledge of Virginia Woolf, it would lose some of its effect. Much of the play relied on prior knowledge to guide the audience through the identities of the characters, as to not be confused by the existence of the Bloomsbury Group or the role of Vanessa Bell. This is, however, a thin criticism, given the warning of the still incomplete nature of the production prefacing the audience entering the room.

This production, more than anything else, humanizes the lofty figure of Virginia Woolf

The audience must see that Theatre With Teeth’s Virginia Woolf is words; her life, her work, her very being was infused with the novels of the past, embedded with the importance of punctuation and the effects of syntax. Virginia in this play asks, ‘Did you never want to lose yourself in a library?’; in this preview production, unravelling in the library of the Exeter and Devon Institution, it was abundantly clear that this is the Virginia- a person, living, breathing and creating in a library- that they most wanted to present.


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