Woolf’s classic essay A Room of One’s Own is much more than Feminism 101. Vanessa Giron on Peta Hanrahan’s moving stage adaptation
I remember reading A Room Of One’s Own in my first year of university, and being advised by my lecturer that it was “feminism 101, more or less the basic stuff”. Peta Hanrahan’s stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s book-length essay shows that Woolf’s contention – that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” – is an idea that has always been obvious.
The show ends with a light thrown on the three women, Anna Kennedy, Anthea Davis, Marissa O’Reilly, as the shadow of the sole male actor, Jackson Trickett, looms over them. It’s fitting that it ends where it begins, where women still find ourselves – standing in the shadow of men.
What plays out before us is the resounding voices of women coming to grips with being a woman; more to the point, being a smart woman; and further to that, a smart woman who is unable to step out of a man’s shadow.
The actors play Mary Beton, Mary Seton, and Mary Carmichael, three women who illuminate differing aspects of Woolf’s essay. No one is playing Woolf; the actors embody different women, each of whom feel her words ring true as they go about their lives. They serve to remind us that Woolf’s truths remain constant, regardless of the name you bear or when you lived.
The adaptation is really a lecture of sorts. No creative licence is taken with the words, aside from the choice of which sections would be included. The use of space is important: the fatigued way they lie on a couch; the passion with which they pace up and down, and the care with which they converse with one another, as if they feel the heaviness of every word. It’s clear that for some women, it’s a lot to carry alone.
Before seeing the show, I went through the old copy of A Room Of One’s Own that I read all those years ago, and I wondered how it would be adapted into a play. The essay’s importance is not simply the intention that drives it, but the way it reads. But it transcended my expectations. What happens on the stage is like witnessing a woman try to convince herself that the discrepancies between men and women are not just in her head – it becomes a justification to the self, that a woman’s anger is validated.
When I first read this essay at uni, I pictured the faces of students listening to Woolf speak, imagining the action from the perspective of Woolf herself. But now, having had it read aloud to me, I feel like an idealistic student who is reminded “to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast”. It makes a world of difference, shifting from understanding and agreeing with what Woolf argues, to admiring it for the piece of art that it is.
The stage has minimal props – a vintage Davenport sofa covered in gold silk frayed at the head, which makes a fitting metaphor; an old wooden chair and desk, with nothing on it but the invitation to write, should you have the time and the means to; and a book, passed between the four people on stage, used to represent the books in libraries women were once not allowed to enter. The books are handled with such blasé attitude that it feels a bit like a “suck it” to the system. It’s as if they’re saying: “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
The freedom of the mind is the most important aspect of this show. The space is minimal, but the voices and presences of these actors are incredibly powerful and moving. Their mockery the silliness of men and humanity in general is often very funny. The chemistry between Kennedy, Davis and O’Reilly creates a relationship between their characters that’s not quite definable but generates intimacy. It felt like watching a conversation in my head unfold – the anger, boredom and tiredness I feel about how myself and all women are treated, how the arguments, time and time again, circle back on themselves.
What remains less clear is the role of Trickett’s character as a plot device. In the moment he almost feels like a “voice of reason”, which makes his character far less enjoyable, and even at times distracting. There is a point in Woolf’s essay, however, when she discusses how systematic the oppression of women has been throughout history. She doesn’t blame men; rather, she defends and understands their need for confidence in order to create art. However, this confidence has affected the art of women. This is the only way that I can frame the necessity of a male character – that these women do not succeed because of the space he occupies, but in spite of it.
Even when I was a student, I found it strange that this essay was framed as “basic”, as if it didn’t require much attention. This show demonstrates that the “basic” stuff is worth revisiting and remembering. “One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold”: whether it’s basic or not, I came to my beliefs in part because of Woolf. I think many of us did.
It is those early introductions to feminism that drive us to the moving forces now in our world, and to minimise something as “basic” rather than a beginning is a disservice to Woolf’s work. “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds,” says Woolf. I’d like to let petals fall on Woolf’s, for reminding me the importance of writing, and the worth it holds.
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, adapted and directed by Peta Hanrahan. Lighting design by Paul Lim, set design by Dagmara Gieysztor, sound design by David Thomson. Performed by Anthea Davis, Marissa O’Reilly, Anna Kennedy and Jackson Trickett. Fortyfivedownstairs, La Mama and Sentient Theatre at Fortyfivedownstairs. Until July 28. Bookings
Access: call the theatre on (03) 9662 9966 to arrange disabled access.