Vita & Virginia

3rd April 2024

Eileen Atkins (abridged) | The Old Joint Stock Theatre | Directed by Richard Delahaye

Billed as ‘for anyone interested in Virginia Woolf, beautiful literature or simply love’, ‘Vita and Virginia’ is a beautifully crafted and performed two-hander which takes us into the heart of the famous ‘Orlando’ author and her 20-year relationship with fellow writer Vita Sackville-West.

Directed and produced by Richard Delahaye, this version of Eileen Atkins’ original 1995 play has been abridged by the cast. Consisting entirely of words spoken or written by the two artists, it delivers 60 minutes of intense and beautiful language. Emma Frances and Ruth Cattell balance poise and passion perfectly in the title roles: there is both intimacy and distance between these women and we feel it.

The simple staging, two chairs and a table around which the characters circle throughout the performance, allows the audience to focus fully on what is most important here: the writing. This is where the concept for the play works so brilliantly: we are listening to the words of writers but, arguably, at their most honest. This is not fiction, or is it? They are not writing for the reading public. We are not their intended audience. They are writing to and for each other and it is a joy to have an insight into their ‘real’ thoughts and passions. It makes for an intensely personal theatrical experience.

The names of the two artists seem to suit their personalities perfectly, uncannily matching their Latin roots: ‘Vita’ is indeed full of life and ‘Virginia’ is a less experienced ‘maid’ figure who, as far as any sapphist activity goes, is virginal. The relationship between these two literary women starts in the early 1920s when they meet in London and ends with Woolf’s suicide in 1941.

The nature of this relationship is the beating heart of the play, and of the letters and diary entries. Are we listening to epistles of platonic love, mutual admiration and respect or sexual desire? They are certainly love letters, but the complex and contradictory nature of their love is what makes the writing so raw and moving. What ultimately emerges is perhaps the highest and most pure expression of love: friendship.

Dressed in a black trouser suit, Emma Francis is a forthright and confident Vita. The words of this prolific letter writer and diarist, often teasing in tone, are delivered with suggestive control. Despite never making eye contact, as the play and the relationship develops, there is a palpable sense of yearning and sexual energy between the women. References to numerous affairs with other women (Sackville-West was rumoured to have taken more than 50 women to bed) are brushed aside and her growing closeness and devotion to Woolf is clear.

In the role of the modernist novelist, Ruth Cattell is a wonderfully nuanced Virginia Woolf: her growing intrigue and attraction to Vita is captured in glances and pursed lips as well as words. In the socially conservative 1920s her burgeoning desire would have been more safely expressed in letters; the eloquence and intellect of this literary genius shine through in her writing but so does her passion and desire. Woolf’s jealousy emerges in some letters: she is envious of Vita’s capacity to “take the floor in any company, to represent her country, to visit Chatsworth, to control silver, servants…her being short (what I have never been) a real woman.”

We now live in a world of instant communication, of WhatsApp messaging, email and social media. What strikes me, listening to the beautiful writing read aloud in this play, is a sadness at the largely lost art of letter and diary writing.

One of Virginia Woolf’s most famous novels, ‘Orlando’, is inspired by her relationship with Vita. Widely regarded as ‘the longest and most charming love letter in literature’, after seeing this ‘Vita & Virginia’ it is now at the top of my reading list: a fitting tribute to two very special performances.

‘Vita and Virginia’ will be at the Criterion Theatre in Coventry on 4th May 2024. Visit for further information.