PHYLLIDA JACOBS discusses Sarah Blake’s Stage Adaptation and performance of ‘A Room of One’s Own’.
A basement theatre in Shoreditch’s The Book Club seems a far cry from the venerated halls of Cambridge where Virginia Woolf first addressed the female undergraduates on the subject of ‘Women and Fiction’ in 1928. Yet this is where playwright and actor Sarah Blake performed her dramatisation of Woolf’s seminal feminist essay, A Room of One’s Own, which made its debut at the Ripon International Festival this year.
In her essay, Woolf argued for the creation of a space for women within an entirely male-dominated literary world. Blake pays homage to Woolf as a literary trailblazer in a simple, pared-back performance that captured all of the lucidity and passion with which Woolf wrote in her much loved essay. The play brought out Woolf’s wry humour in commenting on the literary establishments of her time; voicing criticisms, some of which are still sadly pertinent today. While we cannot know how Woolf herself would have spoken these words, hearing them related to a live audience brings back the immediacy of her message.
A Room of One’s Own has been a powerful inspiration to many young women who wish to write fiction, including Blake herself, who first encountered it while studying at UCL. After the performance, Blake spoke to the audience about how she adapted the essay for the stage, and how Woolf’s ideas are still relevant to women’s lives and creativity, 86 years after she penned them. She reflected that whilst the challenge of being published has been overcome for many women, their work is often treated in a patronising manner, or as less serious than that of men.
Blake remarked on the lack of strong roles for women in mainstream theatre, and the lack of opportunities for female directors. Her theatre company, Cabinets of Curiosity, was partly founded to redress this imbalance. Revealing the hidden histories of women is a subject previously explored in her play Five Clever Courtesans, which explores the lives of women such as Nell Gwynn and Cora Pearl.
Ironically, the only flaw in Blake’s adaptation is how firmly it adheres to the original text, in many ways creating the feeling of a period piece. In a world where the importance of intersectional feminism is widely recognised, Woolf’s neglect of women of colour is painfully apparent. Conspicuous by its absence is also Woolf’s references to homosexuality (“Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit it in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women.”) Regardless of whether this omission was necessary or deliberate, it represents a glossing over of a part of Woolf’s life so often ignored.
Sarah Blake’s show is perhaps as close as we will get to witnessing Woolf’s groundbreaking polemical style in action, although unlike Woolf’s original lectures, men are allowed to attend.
The production was directed by Gloria Sanders. Find more about Cabinets of Curiosity HERE.