Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Maggie Smith wasn’t!

Maggie Smith as Virginia Woolf, Stratford Festival (1980)
Maggie Smith as Virginia Woolf, Stratford Festival (1980)

This review was first published on Tumblr in October 2012

It’s funny how at the time of writing this everyone is heaping praise on Maggie for that barely minute long scene in Downton on Sunday night when Violet comes so painfully close to breaking down. It’s a devastating moment and one which seems to have given people a sharp reminder that there is more to Maggie Smith’s talent than simply a miraculous gift of timing and one liner delivery. She is an actress of immense power and never more so when doing the smallest of gestures – anyone familiar with “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne” will know exactly what I am talking about. If you thought that little stumble in Downton was painful to watch, best to avoid Judith Hearne, which is an endless series of moments like the Downton one – quiet, painful anguish, but for two hours. It’s a stunning, raw, harrowing performance and one that lingers in the memory for a long time. Which brings me to the play “Virginia”. To sum it up, what Judith Hearne is to Maggie’s film resume, “Virginia” is to her theatrical one. In many ways a forgotten performance but without doubt (based on what I’ve had the pleasure of seeing) it is the most devastating and emotionally raw of a stunning career.

Written by Edna O’Brien, who apparently never considered anyone else but Maggie for the role, “Virginia” tells the story of the life of novelist Virginia Woolf. In essence the play is a one woman show – an epic monologue only broken up with occasional interaction from the actors playing Leonard (Woolf’s husband) and Vita (Woolf’s lover). Even a cursory glance through the text of the play is enough for one to appreciate the gargantuan task it represents for an actress. Add to that the nature of the work; the woman it is dealing with, and the demons and mental condition that plagued her, and you get some sense of just how harrowing the play is for an audience to watch – what it must be like for the actress playing Virginia doesn’t bear thinking about. Therefore forgive me if I say that if you thought that moment in Downton was too painful to bear, you ain’t seen anything.

I think it’s fair to say that the play; it’s style, it’s minimal nature, the at times almost abstract way we are presented with Woolf’s life, represent something truly unique in Maggie’s theatrical career. Those who criticize her as being an actress of mannerisms (the hand gestures, the vocal inflections etc) and indeed those who look at those same mannerisms with awe and envy will find the Maggie Smith in Virginia to be like nothing they have ever seen before. I can only once again make the comparison to Judith Hearne; those who think of Maggie in terms of her comic genius, of those haughty, somewhat ridiculous women that she’s so cornered the market in, would be utterly shocked at the stripped down, emotionally naked Maggie we see in Hearne. Hand gestures and musical scale like vocal inflections – those things that some say she relies on (I for one don’t consider this to be remotely accurate) are banished in a performance that is so real that it seems wrong to use the word performance. My eternal issue with Hearne is that Maggie is so real in it, that it’s feels almost too intimate to watch. Virgina is the same.

The play opens with Maggie and an actor as Virginia’s father (Nicholas Pennell, who also plays Leonard) alone on a minimally dressed stage –  two chairs and nothing else. Dressed the same throughout the production as middle aged Virginia, the play chronologically charts her life from the death of her mother in her youth, through the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her step brother, her life with her sister Nessa and her feelings when Vanessa married, the Bloomsbury set, her own eventual courtship and marriage to Leonard Woolf, the relationship with Vita, and most crucially and horrifically, her mental breakdowns.

It’s a testament to Maggie’s talent that even dressed as a middle aged woman, we utterly believe those moments of her as a young woman. There is a lightness in her voice – a sense of wonder, which in the play’s first truly ghastly moment is extinguished as she lays back, her body contorted at a painful angle on one of the seats and recalls the first night she was abused by her step brother just after a party. The anguish in her voice is truly haunting as she endures the nightmare.
O’Brien’s play doesn’t overly dwell on these moments, that’s not her style as either a playwright or an author, but rather she presents us with one visual representation of what was a period of abuse. To read the play the scene is but a handful of lines surrounded by other recollections. It’s the brilliance of Maggie, the sight of her so horribly angled back in a chair, her voice crying out, that sears it into the brain.

One of the most remarkable feats of O’Brien’s play and in turn Maggie’s performance is that we are given such a well rounded vision of Woolf. The play isn’t just about misery and moments of utter anguish; we see Woolf high spirited (beautifully echoed in the change in Maggie’s voice – the tempo suddenly quicker and lighter), enthralled and reveling in the company of the Bloomsbury group. We see her jealous of her sister, her plotting as she deliberately gets close to Nessa’s husband. We see her change of affection regarding Leonard – her initial boredom to adoration. And of course we see the madness.

The madness. It’s hard even now to think back on that scene and not feel somewhat ill. It’s an incredibly raw portrayal of a woman losing herself. Maggie, who we always think of as so cool and controlled, becomes a rag doll of horrific angles and spasmodic movements – her body contorted into shapes that look downright painful. She at one stage throws herself on the floor such is Virginia’s agony. Added to that the voice – the desperation in it – the cries. I’m reminded of that scene towards the end of Capturing Mary, when Maggie’s character, drunk, lies down in tears on the park bench. Except Mary drunk as she was wasn’t entirely out of control – Virginia is. She’s lost, she’s helpless, she’s a wild wounded animal crying for help and yet pushing anyone away who might give it. Maggie pushes, she shoves, she cries out – her whole body out of control in a remarkable performance that never once so much as hints at theatricality – it’s so real. It is utterly devastating to watch.

Those who have read Coveney’s biography of Maggie will note that he doesn’t much dwell on the play beyond that it happened – indeed one comes away with almost an impression that the play is just about Woolf and her mental health problems and that it never really explores much else in Woolf’s life, which seems utterly crazy given that Vita is one of only three roles in the play. I’m not too sure if he was wearing blinkers and that the subtext (and one fleeting moment of overtness) went right over his head, if he simply refused to see the lesbian element in the play, or if in writing the biography he somehow felt it might be wrong to mention that at one point Maggie is kissed on the mouth by another woman on stage. Either way, Coveney’s book ignores a rather important element of the play, so I have to confess that it was indeed quite a surprise when the kiss happened. It should be noted that the kiss isn’t in the stage directions (O’Brien seems to favour a spartan approach to those) but rather in a line delivered by Virgina, but which without any actual stage direction accompanying it seems rather abstract given the dialogue just before (that or I am just incredibly stupid and been suffering from Coveney-itis before seeing the play).

Virginia: (voice over) “She has found me. She has kissed me. All is shattered.”
Vita: Good God, you are not going to give me chastity.

For those who’ve read the play, I think it’s fair to say (kiss or no kiss) that the text does indeed do more than just hint at a deep love affair between the two women. O’Brien doesn’t state what kind of love affair – it’s never said that they are lovers, but given what we know of the real Woolf and Vita and the inclusion of the kiss, I think there can be no doubt that that is what she’s getting at. The way Patricia Connolly as Vita looks at Virginia is alone enough to suggest a lover’s desire and that when she tells Leonard that she loves Virginia, she doesn’t mean in the best friend sort of way.

Watching Maggie play out the other side of this love affair is really rather remarkable. Quite often she’s been cast as the aggressor when it comes to issues of the heart and lust, but in Virginia she is the one being seduced, and again I emphasize the subtlety at work here. It’s a quiet love affair; one of eyes, ever so gentle gestures, voices and most importantly words. Those who again think of Maggie as only Brodie or Violet would be quite stunned at just how incredibly ethereal her voice can be. In Virginia there isn’t a trace of haughtiness – it’s soft, melancholic at times yes, but gentle and startlingly melodic, especially when talking with Vita. The only time it veers away from this is during the agonizing scenes of madness, where her voice takes on a tone haunting in how raw, wild and despairing it sounds.

It’s odd; I didn’t really know what to expect with Virginia – so little has been actually written about it and the text of the play can only give so much, plus as I’ve said, O’Brien keeps her stage directions to a bare minimum – but I know that I came away from seeing it incredibly and profoundly moved – more so than by any other film or stage production I’ve ever seen. Hearing Maggie read Virginia Woolf’s suicide letter at the end is truly heartbreaking. I can’t begin to imagine what it was like for those who experienced it live. It’s a remarkable play, but more than that, it’s a beyond remarkable performance from Maggie. It must have drained her terribly night after night – to go through the highs and deep lows of Woolf’s life, to lose yourself so much in the part the way she did. No wonder we’ve never seen a major revival of it since – no one else could do play the way Maggie did.