Turning a lecture into a theatrical piece might at first glance seem dreadfully easy; after all, the text is written to be delivered to an audience. But a lecture audience is concerned solely with content, not with dramatic delivery, characterisation or any such matter. Except, perhaps, on occasion when the lecturer him- or herself is so prominent that being in their very presence may challenge the substance of the lecture as the crucial factor.
Conceivably, this was the position of Virginia Woolf in her 1928 lectures to the ladies (at the time) not quite of Cambridge University, later published as A Room Of One's Own, which lay bare the subordinate, contingent status of women down the ages and argue that a woman writer needs an income of £500 per year and, yes, that private room. In Patrick Garland's production at Hampstead, we do find ourselves by and large listening to Mrs Woolf's argument even 70 years on, and the fact that we do so is testimony not simply to the original writing but, paradoxically, also to Eileen Atkins' performance in this 75-minute solo show.
As a taped introduction drawn from Woolf's correspondence or a journal plays, Atkins enters down the aisle, divests herself onto the hat-stand, machine-rolls herself a cigarette at the table and then takes over seamlessly from the tape, beginning, "But, you may say,..." as if she were continuing an argument, although in fact these are the first words of the printed version of Woolf's lectures on "women and fiction".
There is a lectern on the stage, but Atkins only chooses to lean upon it two or three times and to stand behind it for two segments, Woolf's musing upon the life of Shakespeare's hypothetical sister and the passage immediately preceding the peroration. For the most part she stands in front of the table or walks around it, referring to a number of books or a notepad supposedly for quotations; after twenty-five minutes, she gets around to smoking that cigarette.
Atkins has an unobtrusive mastery of delivery. She is animated, but never exaggeratedly so; it is simply a result of thoughtful engagement with the text. Her voice, eyes and timing convey the vein of dry wit running through Woolf's lecture: she invests the word "essayists" with the same polite but firm distaste she had previously visited upon "prunes" when speaking of a dinner at Girton College. At certain moments she seems even to acquire Woolf's face and eyes, although normally Atkins bears little physical resemblance to her subject. This is not high drama, nor does it for a moment pretend to be, but it is efficient, effective and an object lesson in solo dramatisation.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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