THEATRE / The love that speaks its name: Paul Taylor reviews Vita and Virginia and Keyboard Skills

Paul Taylor
Tuesday 12 October 1993 23:02
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NO computer dating agency in its right mind would ever have paired off Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. True, both were married lesbians, the one 'a pronounced Sapphist', the other a more mumbled variety. But then you look at the dissimilarities (the cerebral blue stocking vs the swashbuckling aristocrat . . .) and feel it would be as easy to imagine James Joyce getting his rocks off with J C Squire.

Yet the pair were powerfully drawn to one another, as is demonstrated by Patrick Garland's captivating production of Vita and Virginia, a two- hander at the Ambassadors, London, derived from the couple's correspondence over 20 years. Starring a couple of first- rate actresses, Eileen Atkins as Woolf and Penelope Wilton as Sackville-West, the piece managed to disarm even this critic, who is both a confirmed Bloomsbury-phobe and allergic to plays based on letters.

The weaknesses of the show can be briefly stated. On Lucy Hall's lovely blue set, both writers are largely abstracted from the rest of their lives. For example, it would put Vita's effusive protestations of love for Virginia into a more comic perspective if we were given some inkling that she was at the same time tossing off equally ardent missives to hubby, which were candid about her pash for Woolf. Vita loved by letter to such a degree that, had she ever reached a divorce court, she would, more than most, have had no problem in citing a 'correspondent'.

It would also be hard to tell from this show that their relationship was, briefly, carnal. Perfectly pitched by the actresses, the extracts from the letters are, though, often brilliantly funny and perceptive and it would be unfair to dismiss this as a piece for radio masquerading as a stage play, since it allows you to see as well as hear what the two of them found in each other.

Her riding-booted leg lolling seductively over a chair- arm, Wilton's butch, beautiful Vita looks the thoroughbred embodiment of her own principle that it is better 'to fail gloriously than dingily succeed'. You understand why, for Virginia, she represented the 'true woman' she herself had never been. Atkins' angular, waspish Woolf is all desiccated crackle and cleverness, showing you the highbrow, withdrawn sensibility that Vita idolised. Spirit / flesh; daughter / mother. Not that the spirit couldn't come down to earth on occasion: 'And dearest Vita, we are having two water-closets made, one paid for by Mrs Dalloway, the other by The Common Reader, both dedicated to you.'

It's back to heterosexual relations of a much less fortunate kind in Keyboard Skills, Lesley Bruce's sharp, very funny new play. A clearly rattled junior minister (excellent Jonathan Coy) returns home in the small hours to his anxious wife (equally excellent Deborah Findlay) who, it becomes clear, was once his secretary. Something has happened, which, if the media finds out, could spell disaster for them. As his various, hilariously involved evasions of the whole truth are stripped away, the present tense drama in the bedroom is interspersed with revealing flashbacks to the pair as boss and secretary and with fantasy intrusions from Miss Gainsborough (Marcia Warren), at whose college the wife did her secretarial training.

Miss Gainsborough's finishing-school rhapsodies on how it's a secretary's job to maintain the boss's illusion of infallibility and her fluting rubrics ('Clean hands, short nails, raised wrists. . . I want to hear how sharp your document will look') counterpoint a drama in which the husband is revealed to have feet of stinking clay, resorting to anything to keep a grip of the greasy pole of preferment. The wife can't win; if she supports him when he's down, she's accused of wanting him to fail. Indeed, the moral of these two plays would seem to be that it would be far wiser for a woman to live with a pronounced Sapphist than with a male politician.

(Photograph omitted)

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