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Review: ‘Virginia’ at La Mama HQ

Showing at La Mama HQ from the 14th to the 26th of February is acclaimed Irish writer Edna O’Brien’s Virginia, a compelling portrait of the intimate life of modernist author Virginia Woolf (Heather Lythe).

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Showing at La Mama HQ from the 14th to the 26th of February is acclaimed Irish writer Edna O’Brien’s Virginia, a compelling portrait of the intimate life of modernist author Virginia Woolf (Heather Lythe). Directed by Nicholas Opolski, the 65-minute production begins in Woolf’s youth at the turn of the 20th century and traverses two world wars, bookmarking a tumultuous period of world history and successive explosions within art and literature. However, within the confined space of the play and static dining room set, the dialogue between Virginia, husband Leonard Woolf (Marc Opitz) and lover Vita Sackville-West (Beth Klein) fails to evoke the dynamism of its period. 

Written with biographical intent, O’Brien’s script becomes autobiographical as Woolf voices her own story. As Woolf, Heather Lythe rapidly forms a rapport with the audience. With an intentional gaze towards those watching and hearing her story, Lythe lets us in on the joke as she – precociously or cruelly? – mocks her family, lovers and peers. Through this sharp wit, Woolf penetrates the literary circles of her time, composed of male Cambridge elites, including in their ranks her brother and future husband. However, Woolf’s speech just as quickly oscillates to half-mad rambling, foreshadowing Virginia’s tragic, quasi-occult end. The porous line between genius and madness is the principal intrigue of Woolf’s character and life as it is animated here. Although both subtle and explicit references are made to the author’s more well-known works, such as To the Lighthouse and Orlando, her artistic oeuvre takes a backseat. 

First portrayed by Maggie Smith in 1980, the play is true to its title. Virginia dominates the script; Lythe alights the stage and casts a looming shadow across the performances of Leonard and Vita, whose responses merely spur Woolf to monologue. Her droll speech, at times, tells more than it shows the story, making Woolf seem like a spectator to her life rather than a part of it. Woolf is untenably stretched as narrator, actor and writer of her personal history, a result of the reflexive nature of O’Brien’s work wherein biographical material becomes autobiographical in the throat of its subject. Virginia is worth seeing for this fascinating dynamic alone as Lythe navigates a battle of voices between Woolf, O’Brien and herself. 

 

Written by Edna O’Brien 
Directed/Designed by Nicholas Opolski 
Sound/lighting design by Shane Grant 

 

Cast 
Virginia – Heather Lythe 
Nessa/ Vita – Beth Klein 
Father/ Leonard – Marc Opitz 

 
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