Turning a novel into a play

Sebastian Faulks once remarked that transposing a novel to another medium is like trying to turn a painting into sculpture.

It’s an image I’ve been thinking about this summer as I’ve watched Vanessa and Virginia transform into a stage play.

What first struck me on reading Elizabeth Wright’s script was the drastic scissoring away of words. Anything not absolutely essential to moving the story forward had been ruthlessly cut. Probably I should have expected this: a play script is after all considerably shorter than a novel.

What I could not have anticipated, though, was the economy with which words were used in rehearsal. I vividly remember director Emma Gersch encouraging the actors to play games together as they searched for a way to perform the childhood scenes. They were asked to chase and mimic each other, to compete against each other, to explore the walls and furniture with their hands – but not to speak. Eventually they were allowed to include one line from the script in their games.

This different emphasis – on physical and emotional exploration rather than words – continued through the rehearsal process. One afternoon designer Kate Unwin returned from a shopping expedition with a pair of round-framed spectacles she had found in a local charity shop. Immediately, Sarah Fullager (who plays Virginia) began working with the spectacles in an attempt to locate a point of empathy with the older Woolf. Watching the alterations the spectacles occasioned in her demeanour was riveting.

All this makes me wonder if Sebastian Faulks’ metaphor is the right one. What defines sculpture as a medium is its stillness: a viewer must move round it to see all its angles. A play, on the other hand, is anything but still. As I learned from watching the rehearsals for Vanessa and Virginia, in the theatre everything – from the actors’ bodies to lighting – is there to bring the characters and their stories to life.

I’m trying to think of a better analogy….

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