Woolf at fortyfive

By Meg Hill

Shakespeare’s sister was named Judith and she died young – “alas, she never wrote a word”. 

Virginia Woolf wrote Judith, a device to symbolise female exclusion from literature, into her narrative essay A Room of One’s Own

The term “Shakespeare’s sister” was donned as a statement. A song by The Smiths and a British pop band both took it as their title.

Shakespeare didn’t have a sister, but he did have a daughter named Judith. Woolf’s niece shared the name, as does an unused gospel, the Book of Judith, – considered the first historical novel. 

“If I was to dare change the name of Shakespeare’s sister, I would have all the Virginia Woolf aficionados on my back I suspect,” Peta Hanrahan told ABC Radio National in an interview about her stage adaptation of the essay. 

The production ran a sold-out premiere season in 2016 and is back until July 28 at fortyfivedownstairs at 45 Flinders Lane.

Peta said the name of Shakespeare’s sister was one of things you just couldn’t change from the 1929 essay. 

It’s surprising, given the essay’s age, that only a few words had to be replaced because they were too tied to the period and not the message.

But by and large, Woolf’s writing still says what it was meant to, and by and large Peta’s adaptation lets it.

The production rests largely on Woolf’s words, spoken by four different actors who each embody a different part of her psyche. Woolf’s thought process and stream of consciousness are presented as dialogue between three women and one man, because “a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her”.

The different parts of Woolf’s psyche cut each other off, giving an edge of self-sabotage to the sense of interruption from the essay.

Woolf, like most women, is constantly interrupted. While she tries to answer her own questions about the position of women in society, she’s interrupted and loses track multiple times. In the essay, this only serves to enhance the emphasis on a room of “one’s own”.

But what solution is it for a woman to be alone in her own space if she interrupts herself. Is it a statement on the impossibility of isolation? The way society exists inevitably within the mind as well as outside it?

The play’s stage layout means the audience at fortyfivedownstairs is split in two on each side of the performers, who the audience watch along with the reactions of the opposite audience section. 

Some in the audience are taken by the humour in the performance, others by the sorrow. 

“A woman must have money and a room of one’s own if she is to write fiction” is declared early, just like in the essay. 

It’s Woolf’s counter to the arguments she finds researching at the British Museum. Most explicitly, that women are “intellectually, morally and physically inferior to men”.

It’s not hard to find a repeat of that back-and-forth in 2019, the argument still hasn’t been won. The debate over equal pay in women’s sport has to be one of the most obvious.  

Woolf was adamant that, one day, Shakespeare’s sister would be born “if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worthwhile”.

Can we say she’s been born yet? 

Do her birth pangs ring out from Peta’s play, or the continued experience of poverty and obscurity?

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