"There is no lock that you can set
upon the freedom of my mind"
by Drew Rowsome
After dark The Campbell House looks even more like an anomaly than it does in the sunlight. The Georgian mansion, which must have appeared huge in it's heyday, is dwarfed by the gleaming glass of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts that sits kitty corner, and the Canada Life office building that looms behind. For the next two weeks The Campbell House is masquerading as the very British Girton College, a venerable educational institution for women. And it has also been moved back in time to 1928.
The premise of this theatrical event is that we have been invited to hear Virginia Woolf give an oration on "Women and Fiction" based on her new book A Room of One's Own. The Campbell House has been redecorated with Girton College memorabilia, and copies of the Girton Gazette are left out for our perusal. The murder stories, announcements of suffragette meetings, and debates about women's place in architecture and home design, contrast nicely with the now campy fashion and home product ads. And I was startled to learn that, in 1928, large hats were a necessity for Ascot - small hats went out of fashion in 1927. The power of print: a few scraps of paper have moved the audience back in time
As well there are copies of Virginia Woolf's books, ostensibly part of her personal library, with a copy of Sense and Sensibility left conspicuously open at a bookmarked page. Skimming through an ancient edition of Cecil Gray's Survey of Contemporary Music, I am startled to find that Stravinsky is a flash in the pan for embodying the frivolous passions of the contemporary age. Not very prescient that Gray. And that would prove to be a very important clue.
Wandering upstairs for the lecture I have a few moments to stop into Virginia Woolf's bedroom. There is a highly coded love letter to Vita Sackville-West, beginning "Dearest Creature," sitting on the desk and her diary is open next to the bed upon which an open suitcase spills its contents (Ms Woolf was too busy in her head to be tidy!). The last diary entry begins, "I have finally finished my long toil at the women's lecture . . ." and notes that it is rainy here in Cambridge.
The audience drifts into the sitting room where a teenage boy in a waistcoat stokes a wood fire. The Head Girl at Girton steps up to the lectern and, after a few hilarious announcements regarding the various Girton arts societies, introduces Virginia Woolf. Naomi Wright does have a physical resemblance to the photos we have of Virginia Woolf but more importantly her slight, birdlike physicality can barely contain a charismatic huge passion. The text of the show, the lecture, is, if I'm remembering correctly, very much taken from the published version of A Room of One's Own. Everyone who has read A Room of One's Own will recognize the themes and metaphors but Wright breathes life and energy into the hypnotic prose; anyone unfamiliar with the book can sit back and enjoy one of the world's great literary essays brought to vivid life. And no-one will be unscathed by Wright's recreation of Woolf's imagining of Shakespeare's sister.
There is a wonderful, but alas brief, moment where Woolf/Wright lets her lesbian passions surface and suddenly the sad future of Virginia Woolf is hinted at. She also picks up a convenient copy of another scholarly work by Cecil Gray and with biting humour illustrates how far woman have come in 1928 since the 16th century, and just how far they haven't. The subtle but explicit implication stretches to today, in 2013, and Woolf/Wright speaks eloquently for all marginalized voices. It is a tour de force performance of a very magnificent text.
Stepping out of The Campbell House and into the cold, the audience fishes in their pockets for their cell phones and re-enters the 21st century. But somewhere in their minds a diary and several ideas churn relentlessly bringing the past into the present and questioning the future. And Woolf's prescient cri de couer, "There is no lock that you can set upon the freedom of my mind," echoes and hovers.
A Room of One's Own continues until Sun, Nov 24 at The Campbell House, 160 Queen St W. a roomofonesown.ca