It’s 1969, Vicki is writing for the women’s page of a London tabloid and lodging with the bohemian Vivien while being courted by Jack. Into their lives breezes Ursula, an Australian actress and Vietnam protester who buys into hippy ideals more than any of them.
Over a series of episodic scenes we see them fall out, argue ideology, share each other’s self-absorption and spout naive platitudes as only children of the 1960s can.
All of which in Iain McAleese’s production of Karen Barclay’s script developed from a devising process looks and sounds like a more flamboyant and politically inclined take on female flat-share dramas such as Take Three Girls and The Pleasure Girls that used to pop un on screens great and small back in the day. In fact, so unremittingly naturalistic is the play that television would be a far better home for it than the stage.
If this seems odd given how the play was created, there are some well-observed studies of how both the class and gender wars could so easily go off the rails, particularly in Frankie MacEachan’s sapphically inclined Vivien.
Too often, however, the lines sound like they’re grafted to an idea that never fully allows them to breathe in a curious look back in languor.
Echoes of Virginia
Watching Viota is an almost exhausting experience for Hazel Robertson as the play examines radical culture changes in the shadow of Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group
Viota is an adventurous piece of theatre by small company Theatre Revolutions that examines culture clashes of the late 1960s. The three main characters are women so different that they seem to have arrived on the stage from distant planets to neatly illustrate radically changing social and political opinions of the era.
The moon landing, second wave feminism, drugs and hippy culture form the backdrop to this turbulent play, which examines a claustrophobic triangular relationship among strong women. However, this is not a simple examination of culture clashes but a pile up of world viewpoints. Class, sexuality and political opinions battle fiercely and openly in this character driven drama.
Aristocratic Vivian lived through both world wars, observed the free expression of the Bloomsbury Group, witnessed the scandalous love affair between Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis and can barely recount how many stately homes she has lived in. Rejected by her blue-blooded friends, forgotten by her ex-husband and neglected by her only son, she rules over her dingy boarding house with a nonchalant and often drunken hand.
Ambitious journalist Vicki is initially in awe of Vivian, with her exotic lifestyle and opulent background. Vivian regales Vicki with her memories of Vita and Violet and the controversy that their relationship caused in late Edwardian society while being accepted and even celebrated within the Bloomsbury Group. Vicki is there to type up Vivian’s autobiography, which she dictates whilst languishing on the beaten-up sofa, glass of neat gin in hand.
In a moving sequence, Vivian painfully recites from the pages of her memoirs and details the loss of her glamorous, night-club singer partner. Their passionate relationship, her acute sense of loss, the class-transcending domestic abuse that she faced at the hands of her husband and her ensuing mental health collapse are tenderly but angrily recounted.
Meanwhile, Vivian is fascinated by newcomer Ursula; an argumentative new-age hippy so gratingly nonconformist that she seems incapable of using any article of furniture the way it was intended. Ursula represents the modern and radical ideas of the late 60s: she’s a Marxist, a vegan and a feminist who never wants to get married and believes in equal pay for women. She’s also an anti-Vietnam war protestor (hiding the fact that her brother has chosen to fight there from her radical friends) and believes in a revolutionary egalitarian new world order. Vivian is enthralled by how easily Ursula shakes off societal constraints that have controlled her own life.
The drama explores the ugly collision of class cultures
The radical differing viewpoints between them are beautifully contrasted early on when they both exhibit their ideas of one woman theatre shows. Ursula screams and rants about babies being napalmed in Vietnam and corporate greed before outlining her plan to be stripped and painted by her fellow actors. Meanwhile, Vivian’s show is of the cosy chat show variety, featuring gardening tips and jolly anecdotes about her upper class friends. Initially clashing in their opinions, Vivian is excited to experiment and happily accompanies Ursula to moon parties and new-age theatre shows. It seems that after been thrown out of her aristocratic set due to her provocative same-sex relationship, she is happy to subscribe to an alternative way of life.
However, the claustrophobic atmosphere of the boarding house is less than harmonious due to the quarrelsome relationship between Vicki and Ursula who clash nastily over their backgrounds and viewpoints. Vicki sullenly characterises Ursula as a fake: a spoilt foreign trust fund brat who can afford unemployment and the luxury of radical, impractical principles. She, meanwhile, must face the classic predicament of professional women: choose a career, which seems to have stalled at inventing the personal problems for the women’s pages of a tabloid, or become a wife to her young executive boyfriend, accompany him to his new post in Bahrain, have children and never return to work.
Her choice is undermined by both Ursula, who doesn’t need to make that choice, and Vivian, who never has. Here the drama explores the ugly collision of class cultures. Vicki, desperate for a meaty story, writes a revealing piece on “stinking” student protestors and their duplicity at both insisting on an equal society whilst failing to credit their own privileged background.
In the end, Vicki’s observations are revealed to be valid with the gradual unravelling of assured and dramatic Ursula. After a clash with a police horse at a protest, she is left with a permanent limp and rages about being “one of them…a cripple”, a figure of pity to be looked down on for the rest of her life. In a fit of bigoted rage she slurs Vivian as a “loony” and a “dyke”. Angry at her predicament she exclaims that she should never have got involved in politics, exposing it as a privileged “choice” of lifestyle and wishes out loud that she had spent her trust fund relaxing on a Greek island.
Viota is an ambitious piece of theatre that examines what we rarely get to see: women’s experiences of profound social and political change
First night nerves seemed to be running high in the small Tron theatre with an unsure stumbling finish and achingly long breaks between scenes. Music from the era was played at ear-splitting volumes as if they were songs on a radio rather than a score to complement the story. Although the set was as grimy and miserable as a late ’60s boarding house should be, this is theatre design with little imagination. The whole production could have been so much slicker, inventive and better co-ordinated. Meanwhile, the performances ranged from the perfectly pitched steely aspiration of Sophia Porter’s Vicki to Frankie MacEachan’s disappointing rendering of Vivian, which lacked the depth, gusto and volume that this complex character deserved.
Viota is an ambitious piece of theatre that examines what we rarely get to see: women’s experiences of profound social and political change. This is a chance to witness second wave feminism and its imagined impact on different characters, which vary from freedom from conformity for Ursula to a dangerous myth for Vicki that leaves her life mostly untouched.
The shadow that the Bloomsbury Group casts over the drama is a cunning move as the audience is able to see the inheritance of new ideas from generation to generation and the swells of feminist waves. More could have been made of Vivian’s experiences and the impact that their ideas had on her but the hint of historical gratitude was well placed.
Despite the ambitions of Karen Barclay’s script, this could be a case of a play taking on more than it can handle. The drama spends a lot of time dwelling on study of complexly-drawn characters and gradually revealing layers of their needlessly complicated backgrounds. Unfortunately, Viota tries to say so much that in effect it ends up saying little and is a missed opportunity to really draw out the tension filled experience of a revolutionary era.
Viota was on at Tron Theatre, Glasgow from 3-6 April.