Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, dramatized by Michelene Wandor

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Classic Serial on BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4, 20-27 May 2012
Set on a single day in June, Mrs. Dalloway chronicles the lives of several different people on the streets of London as Clarissa Dalloway (Fenella Woolgar) made preparations for her party. In the first episode, we heard an account of the first part of the day: from breakfast to luncheon.
On the one hand Marc Beeby's production suggested the inexorable passage of time - symbolized by the repetitive chimes of Big Ben on the soundtrack, or the characters' footsteps walking along the pavement as they hurried to their meetings, visited the shops, or had lunch with one another. The sense of perpetual motion was also suggested by the dialogue: the characters spoke with one another in breathless tones, as if they were desperate to finish one piece of business and move on to the next.
On the other hand Michelene Wandor's script deliberately subverted this forward movement through lengthy dramatic asides, in which the characters reflected on the past, and how it continued to shape the present and future. This was especially true of Septimus (Paul Ready) a World War I veteran who was a budding young poet until he enlisted, but now sees nothing of worth in contemporary England. He inhabits the past, in the belief that it provides an alternative to the nihilistic present. In the end the strain proves too much for him, and he ends up taking his own life. The sound-effect signalling this moment was deliberately shocking; the action paused for a couple of seconds before resuming once more, in order to allow listeners the time to register what had happened.
Meanwhile Peter (Scott Handy) could never quite reconcile himself to the fact that Clarissa turned down his proposal of marriage, preferring Richard (Sam Dale) instead. Clarissa herself admitted in asides that she had probably made the right decision - despite his surface attractiveness, Peter was something of a lost soul, preferring to consort with women at a surface level rather than making the effort to get to know them. While Peter himself resented such suggestions (he voiced his objections in no uncertain terms), we understood that this was a defence mechanism, a way of wilfully blinding himself to the truth about his nature.
The technique of direct address transformed the adaptation into a stream of consciousness narrative, giving us a unique insight into the characters' mental states. No one could really understand Septimus' illness, not least Dr. Holmes (Peter Hamilton Dyer), who offered a series of useless remedies, including playing cricket and telling Septimus not to think too deeply about himself. Holmes could not understand how the 'dead hand' of the past prevented Septimus from finding a meaningful course of action in the present. Meanwhile Peter found that his latent feelings towards Clarissa prevented him from enjoying another relationship: every woman he saw was another incarnation of her.
Through this bipartite structure, Wandor and Beeby underlined the novel's social criticism: the characters are so concerned to finish their work as soon as possible that they often find little time to reflect on their actions. When they do pause for a moment, they reveal the fundamental complexities of their nature. Perhaps we, as listeners, should take the time to listen to them, so as to understand their motives.
Radio appears the ideal medium for adapting a modernist work like Mrs. Dalloway: the intimacy forged between actor and listener gives the feeling that the characters are confiding their private thoughts to us in asides. We should feel privileged that they have taken the time to do so. I was captivated by the production, and congratulate all the creative talents involved - director, adapter and an exceptional cast.