Those who went along to Moving Stories’ Vanessa and Virginia in order to learn more about the acclaimed Bloomsbury Group artist Vanessa Bell set themselves up to be seriously disappointed. Elizabeth Wright’s play paints a compelling portrait of the relationship between Vanessa and her slightly more celebrated sister. However, in a narrative that is predominantly fixated on one of the twentieth century’s most vibrant and troubled literary figures, this play lingers longest on Virginia Woolf.
We first meet Bell (Kitty Randle) as an older woman. Alone on stage, she introduces her relationship to the late Virginia Woolf in a way that shows devotion. Seconds later, the subject of these memories bursts into Vanessa’s space, and two young sister playfully dart around, energising a joint biography that will take them from childhood to just beyond Virginia’s death at the age of 59. Throughout this piece, Virginia remains a vision formed from her sister’s recollections. Played with a surprising sweetness by Alice Frankham, the writer overlaps her sister with animated narratives that drift in and out of whispers. As we listen to Vanessa’s version of events, Frankham, with her back turned to us, presents to an invisible on-stage audience, depicting a woman who knows how to engage a crowd.
Kate Unwin‘s design captures both the antiquity and energy of the wave of modernism that both inspired and was inspired by the sisters. Above the two actors items including a parasol, colanders, dried flowers, manuscripts and beads hang on invisible wires, forming a swarm of contextual artifacts that root the women in a setting that is at once aspirational and domestic. The historical period established, a paint-splashed floor and a backdrop hued in grassy green, sky blue and cloudy white orientate the production firmly within an artist’s mind. The design is both conceptual and functional, and the performers interact with their hanging props, rearranging the items around them to drive the narrative. With makeup taken from a suspended container, Virginia is ready to charm society; moments later, this lipstick is smeared on paper as a post-impressionist masterpiece.
With Vanessa fighting to hold onto the reins of this story, the power struggle between these two creative women is neatly crafted. Vanessa’s narrative is consciously understated, reminding us that “Virginia could tell the story so much better”, but such is the delicacy of Wright’s writing and the turbulent swing of jealously constructed by Randle, Virginia appears all the more brilliant in the glow of this humble imagining. While sometimes Wright’s adaptation borrows a little too much from Susan Sellers’s biographical novel of the same name, Vanessa and Virginia neatly captures both the unchanging historical significance of these two influential woman and the dynamic world within which they lived.
Vanessa and Virginia played at The Riverside Studios until 14 April. For more information see the Riverside Studios website.