This review will consider V&V, written and directed by Misha Pinnington and currently performing at The Vaults Studio, London, as part of The VAULT Festival.
I have mixed feelings about this performance, mainly because this performance itself offers two very different stories with their unique readings. Whilst both study the romantic correspondences between a pair of women, the two remain completely disparate narratives with completely different significances. One narrative [referred to below as the historical narrative] imagines the epistolary correspondences between Virginia Woolf (Heather Wilkins) and Vita Sackville-West (EM Williams); the other [referred to below as the modern narrative], the text-message communications between fictional characters Lottie (also Wilkins) and Mia (also Williams) via a modern dating app. The creators make rather retrospective and overanalytical comparisons between communications of romance in the 20th century and those of the modern world. Implied are the dissimilarities between the clarity, simplicity and heartfelt passion offered by traditional letter writing and the ambiguity, duplicity and bluntness of modern text talk. Whilst this is a clear and comprehensive trajectory, it is one utterly lost in the way it is explored through this performance. It is an aim which the play itself does not communicate, with the two stories seeming completely disconnected and unrelated, and with no extra measures beyond mere dialogue taken to convey message, purpose or meaning. There is a confusion between aim and inspiration, and this demonstrates itself in the material we are presented.
With the aim so confused and ill-communicated, so is the reasoning behind placing the two narratives alongside one another. For a large number of reasons, only some of which I will detail in this review, the narratives remain very disparate, their relationship remaining confused and unclear. In this respect, overall reading is certainly skewed.
The first reason these narratives remain so dissonant has to do with the extending significance of the characters. Lottie and Mia are fictional characters, imagined personae that echo the conceived average experience of communicators on modern dating apps; whereas, the characters of Virginia and Vita represent real-life people, de-contextualised historical figures of whom we have knowledge and understanding that pre-exist and transcend the dramatic text. Already, in the text’s most crude form, we have a friction in the conceptualisation of these characters and in their relatability and hence in their stories. As audiences, we are naturally drawn to the familiar, and in this instance, we are drawn to the figures of Virginia and Vita in this latter narrative and to the experience and context of dating apps in the former; our focus remains imbalanced in this way.
In comparing the ways romance is expressed in the past vs in the present, it would make sense to depict either two real correspondences or two imagined ones that are, indeed, rooted in custom and social reality. To explore the romance conveyed in the historical correspondences between Woolf and Sackville-West through a made-up and fictitious romance and to weigh these against each other cannot make for a convincing, conclusive and accurate verdict. We learn nothing and explore nothing of this modern narrative if it comprises only ideas already in the heads of the creators’, without drawing from appropriate forms of evidence. In other words, there is no actual exploration occurring here; instead, a mere fiction is being devised to complement the pre-existing theorisations of the creators. This so-called “exploration” is thus flawed from the very beginning.
I should also mention here that this fictionality makes it very difficult to digest the material at the very end of the play. Whilst the story of the modern couple ends in a mere breakup, the story of Virginia and Vita ends in a tragic and long-preempted suicide, intensified by its historicity. Suicide for one ending seems rather drastic and exaggerative compared to a mere sad breakup for the other, and this makes for a disequilibrium in the emotionality of the narratives. Very much related to this is the issue of context. We are presented with a very inconsistent sense of time and location. The time period within which Lottie and Mia’s story operates is marked quite distinctly, with contemporary language, the incorporation of technology (both the dating apps and the use of the projection screen, which I shall elaborate on later) and the exposure of current social values and customs, as outlined in the online articles and expressed through the characters’ inner dialogues — e.g. when characters worry about if they have left enough time before replying, in order to not appear desperate. However, what is there to mark the time period of this narrative, besides a few mentions of location and the figures of Woolf and Sackville-West? We are forced to rely on our own [perhaps incomplete or crude] knowledge of these persons and the time period they inhabited. With the times and their contexts being key to this play’s cross-case analysis, one would think that they would be much better elucidated, nay fundamental to both stories and their presentations and not just implied.
Language, too, obviously plays a huge part in this disparity, one offering short and direct communication and the other offering loquacious prose. This difference of language is not so much a problem in itself, as it both distinguishes the narratives and reflects the times in question well, making for clarity and legibility, but the use of two very different languages, each with their own level of complexity of vocabulary, worsens the existing friction between the two narratives. Woolf and Sackville-West are not just generic letter-writers of the 20th century. Being poets, the language these women use retains a certain poeticism that stylises the dialogue in a way unequalled by the language used in Lottie and Mia’s communications which, conversely, do represent a generic modern speech. Not only does the modern narrative present us with modern text speech but also with the language of articles and with inner monologues which present inner speech as well as social speech in an unrestrained and fluid manner. Comparing the unique, particularised, poetic writings of Virginia and Vita against the more general, basilectal speech produced by Lottie and Mia compromises any accuracy or sincerity in conclusions about time-specific communications of romance.
Movement plays an equally integral role. The movements for the historical couple are stylised, relational, robotic; for the modern couple, these are a lot more fluid and expansive, seeing the performers making real use of the stage’s geography, hiding behind the projection screen, sitting on chairs, lying on the floor. Again, movement styles do differentiate narratives well, but this differentiation enlarges what already seems like a great distance between the two narratives. Furthermore, towards the very end of the play, these movement styles seem to become unpronounced, blending into one another; it becomes rather unclear, particularly with Virginia and Vita’s writings seemingly losing their verbosity to some degree, as to which characters/stories are being portrayed. I must admit that this is a frequent issue in the latter half of the performance. And then there’s what I shall call the ‘dog sequence’ which demonstrates a completely different performance style of its own, seeing Williams on her knees and begging like a puppy and Wilkins controlling her actions with mystified, serpentine hand gestures.
This dog sequence is really the only thing we are presented in the historical narrative that strays away from its unchanging articulation through dialogue and movement. The modern narrative, however, is articulated through many means: dialogue, exaggerative physicality, audience interaction, the use of the projection screen, the projections of text messages and the projections of text… The scene wherein the characters detail the “different types of sexting” sees Williams and Wilkins assume very different roles. They are no longer readably Lottie and Mia but are informants. The two perform beside one another, together, where they have remained up to this point distinctly separated and will continue to be so when this scene comes to a close. Elements like this which inform us of the social context surrounding the characters are not equated in the presentation of the historical narrative. The projections, of course, have a function of their own, providing a distinct visual language also unavailable to us with the historical couple. Yet, they also provide us with a non-human method of storytelling, being technical elements, where the historical narrative relies emphatically on the human voice and body for its telling. Here, we find a colossal stylistic incongruity.
I should also take this opportunity to note the danger of projecting text which is intended to match character dialogue. If an actor makes but one mistake, mispronouncing or misreading their lines, this is immediately noted in the mind of the spectator, much like when reading subtitles on a TV that do not match the action. As this play went on, such errors became rather particular to the actors, primarily Wilkins. I would recommend line recall be tighter for this reason. Projections also became increasingly off-centre, and this made for a most unseemly effect during the aforementioned ‘types of sexting’ scene. There is no excuse for misplacing the screen, with white taping marking appropriate positions most conspicuously upon the floor. Projections also lag at times and pre-empt lines at others.
I mentioned audience interaction as something which defamiliarises the narratives, and this is the final reason I shall give as to why the narratives remain so disparate. From very early on in the modern narrative, Wilkins and Williams — though, mainly Williams, which naturally causes us to give her more attention — interact directly with audience members, not only relaying to them directly the thoughts of their characters but requesting that they have an input in the play, singling them out as the objects of chat-up line practice, asking if phrases seem appropriate or too heavy. Where is this in the historical narrative? Are we to imagine that Virginia and Vita write their letters without hesitation or practice, without self-censorship and overanalysis? Where are the redrafts and discarded versions of the letters?
Audience interaction is also used, less directly, in the overture which sees Wilkins sat upright in a chair Upstage Centre, glaring at us as we enter the house, her head tilting upwards, from left to right, as though looking down upon us. The overture communicates confrontation, connoting also superiority, dignity and pride. This has absolutely nothing to do with the story, or stories, that follow. It feels as though the vast majority of the decisions made in this performance are for temporary effect and do not consider what will be communicated overall when these decisions are lain side by side to be viewed as a complete entity –– a play.
Most elements, on paper, seem promising and artistic decisions made for each narrative alone are rational, logical, sensible and clear, but what connects all of the material we are presented remains completely elusive and unarticulated. I think, for instance, that the modern narrative does exemplify well how dating apps have equated a sort of gaming culture, with prospective partners playing hard to get, as it were, limiting expressions of their personalities and assuming various personae to seem “cool”, “edgy” and “mysterious” and hence more appealing, more attractive. In this way, as self-contained pieces, these narratives are, for the most part, accessible and successful, but the significant elements which relate them with one another, those elements that compel the creators to present these narratives alongside one another, need to be better teased out and highlighted for us. As it stands, it feels as though we are watching two completely different plays, and with such stark differences in the imagination, dimensionality, energy and personality that births the narratives, our interest can only favour one narrative over the other. We are forced to see them as very separate entities, for the reasons I list above. I would urge Pinnington to reconsider how, for example, language, movement and technical elements [amongst others] can be used to pair and align the two narratives together rather than to differentiate them, and how this can complement or reinvent our reading of them.
As for acting, Williams and Wilkins are rather good actresses, remaining, for the most part of the play, credible and energised. As Lottie and Mia, they are both hilarious and convincing, but I would recommend a brush-up on their portrayals of Virginia and Vita. It is clear, particularly with Williams, that the language offered in the historical narrative sits unnaturally and uncomfortably with these actresses. Credibility is lost to an awkward over-drama.
I would just like to finish with a final note on lighting. Detectable even in the photographs above, the tones used in the lighting’s design are very simple and non-overbearing, being, of course, complementary with one another, yet they remain so deep, rich and dynamic. Design undoubtedly complements the performance as it is, but, again, the use of natural lighting vs these rich-coloured washes distinguishes the narratives at too great a cost. Nevertheless, a fine design.
“An enjoyable performance but one which suffers from significant inarticulacy.”
Photography Credit: Ali Wright.