Septimus & Clarissa: Sign of the Woolf


In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, set on a London day in June just after the end of the first World War, Clarissa Dalloway’s mind drifts back and forth across time, revisiting old loves and mulling over old regrets as she prepares for the glamorous soiree she’s throwing that evening. Across town, Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked poetry fancier, raves with messianic intuitions, and pursues past-present reveries of his own—plagued by ghosts of dead comrades, and the unshakeable feeling that life is banal and meaningless.

The two characters never meet, but they’re linked by coincidences: Both share similar epiphanies about the ultimate solitude of human beings as they gaze through windows at lonely old people. And Septimus’s desperate suicide later that same day becomes party gossip at Clarissa’s shindig—prompting her to secret, bleak realizations of her own.

Septimus & Clarissa, an overly worshipful new stage adaptation of the high-modernist classic—directed by Rachel Dickstein for her company Ripe Time, with a faithful script by Ellen McLaughlin—takes this narrative duet as the starting point for dreamy dance-theater choreography. Perhaps inspired by Woolf’s habit of finding revelations in everyday things, Dickstein gives the piece a mood of hazy abstraction: swanning, often slo-mo, movement sequences are the preferred mode of conveying strong emotion; much time is spent staring wide-eyed into the middle distance (at the cruelty and majesty of life, one suspects). But where, you wonder, is the quotidian drudgery, the stubborn realness of objects, that Clarissa and Septimus both find so oppressive? This world is all mystery and no mundanity. The music—portentous piano plonks, anxious strings—covers everything with yearning and dread; the unspecific blue background sets the cast dancing somewhere between the sea and the sky.

The novel’s oblique antiwar perspective came from Woolf’s insistence that each human being’s perceptions are unique, perishable, and perhaps untranslatable to others; the narration leaps from psyche to psyche, constantly surprising with new vantages seen from within new characters’ heads (while Septimus and Clarissa are focal points, Woolf pays passing visits to many other mental spaces along the way). Any death, Woolf suggests, extinguishes a whole world. But in Ripe Time’s production, the statement is much more heavy-handed: an air-raid scene occasions feverish grunting and rolling around; Septimus’s PTSD spurs violent somersaults and frenzied chalk-scribbling on the set.

Dickstein attempts to mimic the book’s kaleidoscopic rhythms of speech and thought by assigning past and present actors to each main character—but this strategy mostly just ends up pinning the story down. Fluid interchanges between minds become bit players stepping out of a chorus line. Passages in which several voices chime in to amplify important lines smother the sentences rather than dramatize divided subjectivity.

With the canned sound effects, non-stop underscoring, plummy voices, and over-literary third-person storytelling, close your eyes and you could be listening to a BBC radio drama (except when the accents, of which there are many—I lost count trying to keep track of all the dialect-tape regionalisms—occasionally falter). Throughout, the air of reverence for an Important Book gives the evening a stultifying atmosphere: Masterpiece Dance Theater.