Review: Mrs Dalloway, Arcola

Published in Time Out on October 2, 2018

Adapting Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel – set over one day in London, as Clarissa Dalloway prepares to throw a party – is always likely to be tricky. Its stream-of-consciousness style swirls together shifting impressions of the present and reflections on the past, and Woolf switches between the interior monologues of a whole host of characters beside Mrs D.

Hal Coase’s new adaptation shares all this out between a cast of five with an assured fluidity that keeps the story moving, overlapping the then and the now. There’s some nice delineation between spoken and internal thoughts, finding both light humour and angst in the clash of characters’ true feelings and polite conversation.

But what’s poetic on the page can come across pretentious when prettily declaimed on the stage, while all the reminiscing about past loves and lost youth often sounds terribly elegiac when spoken aloud.

It’s a shame, because it starts promisingly boldly – with a meta-theatrical introduction that sees actors introducing themselves to the audience, and emphasising the element of the plot Coase is clearly most interested in: how we create a character (in life and fiction), but also the ultimate unknowability of anyone other than ourselves. A smart thread to draw on for a theatrical adaptation, for sure.

But that brisk reminder of the mechanics of creation is soon subsumed in a flurry of 1920s costumes, accents, and rather mannered performances – the old-fashioned kind we de facto expect when it comes to period dramas, especially ones about posh folk.

There are some creative directorial flourishes in Thomas Bailey and Emma D’Arcy’s production: I loved the simplicity of the set, the time of day represented simply by a small board of blue sky, or creating the bustling city soundscape through several cassette players carried around the stage. But such innovations are rarely developed, and the occasional anachronism – an Oyster card, a copy of ‘Metro’ – feels token rather than genuinely disruptive or illuminating.

The climatic party’s bustle is created through a kind of press conference; it is certainly droll as a staging solution, and nods to the distinction between the private and the public persona. But as a metaphor for a party? I’m just not sure it really works.

D’Arcy also performs, and is sharp and suggestive in her shape-shifting between many roles, although playing the wife of Septimus, a shell-shocked soldier, is a little thankless. Guy Rhys is weirdly cheery in the part; he comes across more like a man who’s just enjoyed a good lunch than one on the brink of suicide. Clare Perkins is appealingly mellifluous as Clarissa Dalloway, however, lighting up memories with summery warmth and conveying the woman’s generosity of spirit, even if she’s less good at tapping into the underlying seam of existential despair at the end. As with much of the show, the register stays somewhat stuck on wistful.

Where next?