SNG Drama Ljubljana, premiere 10th March 2023
Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel, Mrs Dalloway, which charts a day in the life of the title character, remains popular and influential almost a century after it was written. When it was announced, the production at SNG Drama Ljubljana sold out almost immediately.
Tomislav Zajec’s adaptation of the novel is not a straightforward staging; in fact, he and director Peter Petkovšek take a rather bold, psychologically complex approach to the text. Virginia Woolf appears as a character within the adaptation alongside her protagonist Clarissa Dalloway, with both women played by Maša Derganc.
Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style of writing was pioneering for its time, and the performance begins in a way that highlights Woolf’s creativity. The figure of Evans (played by Saša Pavlin Stošić), a dead war friend of the novel’s other main character, the troubled First World War veteran Septimus Smith, is present on stage, and we see Woolf interact with him. They observe each other silently as they move around the stage. In this way the author (though not realistically portrayed, more of a caricature) is fused with one of her fictional creations. It’s an intriguing decision.
It’s important to stress how big of a role the brilliant scenography by Sara Slivnik plays in the production. The stage set is elegant and white, surrounded by translucent sliding doors and windows. As the story progresses, the sliding doors open and let us see more of the house from the inside. A balcony at the back of the stage makes the space feel more realistic.
The scenography is not simply functional, Slivnik’s graceful design also allows for the actors to step forward when they want to create more intimate, more “biographical” moments, or to remain in the interior of the set when their characters are presenting the more socially acceptable version of themselves – having a party, mingling, talking about business. When standing at the front of the stage, the characters are more open, more sincere. When Woolf is thinking out loud about the novel or about the character of Clarissa Dalloway, it seems like she knows where she stands in terms of her societal class and privilege, her status in post-war society; however when she is in the process of creating the novel in front of her guests at the party, she is almost too concentrated on what is happening to her characters, and on the story itself, without the requisite critical thinking to back it up. This dichotomy seems appropriate, given the way Woolf’s novel follows two seemingly separate stories, but of course in Mrs Dalloway both stories, those of both Clarissa and Septimus, are fictional, whereas here Woolf is presented though via mixture of fiction and biography.
In this dual role, Derganc demonstrates her great range as an actor, handling the transitions with real smoothness and skill.”Saša Tabaković, as Septimus Smith, approaches his role with incredible gentleness, portraying a haunted war veteran with a clear understanding of trauma and its consequences, without resorting to extremes of pathos. On the whole, the ensemble has great chemistry and appeal.
Given all this, it sounds as if the show works well. And it does, at least to the point when one starts asking about the relationship between the biographical and completely fictional elements. While Septimus is one of two main characters of the novel, he is almost eclipsed by the constant presence of Evans; both of them are reminders of war’s left behinds – the latter more so on stage than in the novel.
The choices of the creative team are not always supported by clear arguments. This is particularly true of the constant presence of this silent character, Evans, who literally does nothing, while Septimus is almost invisible by comparison; despite being an anchor to the whole story, he is unutilised in the first half of the play. Petkovšek’s really missed an opportunity to explore this character and while some of his choices are enjoyably unconventional, they are also illogical.
Similarly, the blurred line between Maša Derganc’s two roles, Mrs Dalloway and Virginia Woolf, while innovative and intriguing in the way it merges them together, is also problematic. It is never really clear who is who. Hence, one could end up thinking that Virginia is a little pretentious, or even ignorant, almost Machiavellian. It is impossible to know how she (if it even is she) sees her characters, or how she sees her friends. And, conversely, Clarissa sometimes seems too aware, not carefree enough, not bourgeois enough.
Some of those who know and love the novel may take issue with some of the decisions. Others less wedded to the text may find them intriguing. But in the end, after Septimus has died by suicide, when Woolf is talking, it does not feel welcome. Although a similar end, for similar reasons, awaits them both, neither of them can leave themselves behind, and neither of them can really acknowledge the system they are in without first acknowledging themselves or each other – and, as a result, none of us can recognise what Woolf recognised a century earlier: that is not the individual that matters, rather the collective and systemic.
Adaptation: Tomislav Zajec//Director: Peter Petkovšek//Scenography:Sara Slivnik//Costume: Gordana Bobojević//Lighting: Andrej Hajdinjak
For tickets and more information, visit: drama.si
Further reading: review of Everything OK at SNG Drama Ljubljana