To the Lighthouse
There are moments in Virginia Woolf’s short novel To the Lighthouse where the intensity and emotional accuracy of the prose seems almost to shimmer.
It forces the image of the lighthouse across the bay on the island of Skye to float above a falsely placid sea: crossing it and breaking the surface will shatter the lives of those who look longingly at it. Only a small boy has the courage to demand to be taken across. And the refusal of his request by his father is the catalyst that will churn the family relationships into permanent turmoil.
The depths of pain and rage as the characters converse and inwardly reflect, usually with bitterness, are terrifying in their neediness; and the portrayal is unnervingly recognisable. It is also a picture of Woolf’s relationship with her husband Leonard, and by extension with her art, to the success of which he dedicated his life.
This play’s dialogue fascinatingly acknowledges Leonard’s alter ego Mr Ramsay and his enraged and embittered love for his wife, as much as his narcissistic disappointment at his own lack of success as an academic philosopher.
He “would pay tribute to your bitter beauty if I was let” he ruminates, but also acknowledges “I can do nothing to help you now.” His beautiful wife takes her place at the foot of an “infinitely long” dinner table that accommodates their eight children and various house guests, and asks herself ”What have I done with my life?”
And the visiting painter Lily Briscoe howls with internal frustration at both of her hosts: Mr Ramsey with his ”monstrous ego” and “splendid mind,” while her own independent spirit is maddened at the seeming placidity with which Mrs Ramsey accepts her lot.
Lily herself will never marry, she determines, while her host thinks she should marry her fellow guest William Bankes, a man past his prime and accepting of life’s vicissitudes.
Meanwhile the poet Augustus Carmichael, his work not to be recognised for many years, has a detached wisdom that is both generous and accepting; and its simplicity infuriates the souls of both his host and hostess, while Charles Tansley, unwillingly fascinated by the Ramseys’ privileged, if financially straitened lifestyle, bristles against both in his head, as exemplars of all that his class prejudice despises.
Ten years later, there is finally a trip to the lighthouse, a hellish World War having been fought and won, and Mrs Ramsey long dead.
Lily has at last accepted the difficulties of art, but still yearns to be accepted by the shade of Mrs Ramsey who “help(ed) the poor while we ached for your attention.”
Tom, who as a child yearned to go to the lighthouse, still begs silently for his father’s approbation as they undertake the journey.
Left behind, Augustus, now a celebrated poet, tries to convince the still-dissatisfied Lily that it is not artists themselves who matter but “what they attempt remains forever.” Just as Mrs Ramsey, who ”upset the proportions of the world” now haunts them all, even to being understood as she never was in life.
Adapting this silkily churning maelstrom with its twists between the conscious and the subconscious must have been an unnerving task for Marina Carr, commissioned by Annabelle Comyn for her Hatch Theatre Company. The result is a magnificent success, due in equal parts to Comyn’s taut, intelligent direction, and dazzling performances of unmatched technical skill and intense depth from everyone concerned (and I write that as a reader who has always had reservations about Woolf).
It was a digital production, filmed at the Everyman Theatre as part of Cork Midsummer Festival, but is clearly designed for stage transfer.
The performances are electrifying throughout, especially luminous from Derbhle Crotty and Declan Conlon as Mr and Mrs Ramsey, and Aoife Duffin as Lily Briscoe. Nick Dunning as Bankes, Colin Campbell as Tansley and Kyle Hixon as James Ramsey match them. And Olwen Fouéré is shining proof that cross-gender casting works if the acting is good enough: she is quietly devastating as Augustus Carmichael. Music and sound are by Philip Stewart, costumes by Saileog O’Halloran and Molly O’Cathain, and set and lighting are by Aedín Cosgrove.
Await the live stage version; it will be a major event.
The Abbey’s One Good Turn by Una McKevitt will be reviewed next week