Taking to the stage as the “COVID officer” for the night, Artistic Director Eamon Flack briefly introduced Belvoir’s new adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own – the first show to open at the venue in six months.

It was, he said, the first time he was happy about having a third full audience. Funnily enough the social distancing didn’t make you feel isolated. Of course it was different to sitting in a packed crowd, but there was still a genuine sense of being part of an audience and sharing a performance together, albeit wearing masks. And how exhilarating it was to be back in a theatre, experiencing a live performance with a gathering of others.

Anita Hegh in A Room of One’s Own. Photograph © Brett Boardman

Rehearsals for the play began in March, ahead of the scheduled April opening. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and the production had to be postponed. Anita Hegh, who delivers Woolf’s words, has therefore had to keep the text percolating in her mind for six months. Maybe that’s why she finds such extraordinary depth in it, and delivers it with such subtlety and dramatic assurance.

A Room of One’s Own began as two lectures about women and fiction that Virginia Woolf gave to students at Cambridge’s women’s colleges, Newnham and Girton, in 1928. The following year she published them as a six-chapter essay. The book is one of the great feminist polemics; a politically progressive manifesto in which Woolf explores how for centuries literature and history were a male construct that kept women at home, uneducated, financially disadvantaged, and very likely married to a man chosen by her father.

As Woolf famously writes, the composite that emerges around women is a mass of contradictions: “Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could barely read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.”

Tracing her way through history, Woolf canvasses the lives and work of women writers including Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea and George Eliot, as well as Shakespeare’s (fictional) sister Judith. At the heart of her argument is that women need a safe room of their own and an annual income in order to become writers.

The Belvoir production was adapted by Carissa Licciardello, who also directs, and Tom Wright. They have done a terrific job in editing back Woolf’s text, judiciously choosing what to remove while retaining the thrust of the piece as well as Woolf’s particular way of thinking and speaking.

In her program notes Licciardello writes:  “A Room is not a historical text. It is not a lecture, or an essay. It is an act of imagination.”

The production that she stages, with set and costume design by David Fleischer, is an imaginative response to Woolf’s book.

Anita Hegh in A Room of One’s Own. Photograph © Brett Boardman

Fleischer uses a minimalist visual aesthetic to create an open space where words and ideas can take flight, and where the focus is all about the poetic text. The stage is bare apart from one chair, on which Anita Hegh is sitting when the lights come up. The lighting is kept quite low, so that although we are aware of a couple of walls in the corner, it’s only later that they are revealed to be the glass walls of a room. Here, Ella Prince is glimpsed now and then in brief, slightly surreal vignettes, representing the women Hegh refers to.

The device not only heightens Woolf’s imaginative leaps, but it is dramatically effective in adding a different dynamic and flashes of colour to the otherwise dark looking production, which is lit by Kelsey Lee, with Alice Chance’s music (with sound design by Paul Charlier) adding another subtle layer.

As the play progresses, Hegh stands and later moves closer to the on-stage room, but she maintains a level of stillness and restraint throughout as she directly addresses the audience. Were that not done well, the play would struggle to flower dramatically, for it lives and breathes through the words. But Hegh is superb.

She doesn’t attempt to adopt Woolf’s accent but speaks with a beautifully modulated clarity, bringing so many different colours, textures, tones and expression to her delivery that the words sparkle and shine. Images of river banks, autumn leaves and university luncheons spring vividly to life as does the tragic tale of Judith. Attuned to Woolf’s anger, sarcasm and wit, she finds lovely moments of humour. Most importantly, she captures the brilliant, supple way that Woolf’s mind weaves around her subject.

Prince brings an enigmatic quality to her scenes, from her initial portrayal of Woolf herself (dressed in similar dark clothing to the shirt and skirt Hegh is wearing), to the dead Judith Shakespeare and the contemporary writer.

Anita Hegh in A Room of One’s Own. Photograph © Brett Boardman

A Room of One’s Own was groundbreaking in its day. A lot has changed since then, but a lot hasn’t. It’s only a few years ago that there was an uproar in Australian theatre at the lack of women writers and directors – something that is now being addressed. For every Judith Shakespeare, there was a Nannerl Mozart – who was a child prodigy like her brother but had to stop performing at age 18 as her father deemed it inappropriate for a woman. Female composers continue to be vastly underrepresented: just one of many obstacles that women continue to face, including the age-old fight for equal pay. So, A Room of One’s Own still has plenty to say.

Socially distanced productions like this are doubtless a moment in time. Theatre companies simply can’t afford to keep staging them. Even a two-hander like this will lose money for Belvoir, but it’s an important bridge back to the theatre: a platform on which to build audience confidence again post-COVID, and a way to get theatre workers back to work. A Room of One’s Own may not have the intense, knotty, gripping emotions of a fully-fledged drama – it’s essentially an intellectual argument – but with Hegh delivering such a wonderful performance, it’s a perfect way to start.

A Room of One’s Own runs at Belvoir St Theatre until October 18

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