Freshwater

Released 2009

Virginia Woolf wrote two versions of a play called Freshwater, for home entertainment. It was finally staged in Vanessa Bell’s London studio in 1935. In 2009, at the Charleston Festival, we had a starry “gala” reading of the play as adapted by me, with an astonishing cast, including the entire West family (Tim, Sam and Prunella), and Dame Eileen Atkins as Julia Margaret Cameron. It was directed by Jonathan Munby.

I was aware of the play when I wrote my novel Tennyson’s Gift back in the 1990s. Terrifyingly, it seemed to deal with the same historical characters as my book – viz, the poet Tennyson, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, the young actress Ellen Terry and her husband, the lauded Victorian painter G.F. Watts. Naturally, I pretended it didn’t exist, and in fact I didn’t pluck up the courage to read it until after my paperback came out. What I found was a very funny play (in two versions). I also felt incredibly privileged. I knew where her jokes came from. I had arrived at some of the same jokes myself.

When I was given the chance to combine the two texts, and move the jokes a bit, I felt oddly entitled to make quite radical improvements for the sake of getting laughs on the night. All that mattered was that the script should work. “I’m just script-doctoring Virginia Woolf,” I would tell people. It’s not a thing I ever expected to say.

The night was a great success, thanks to Jonathan Munby and the amazing cast, who were, in full:

Narrator/Queen Victoria …….Prunella Scales
Mr Cameron …………………….………Hugh Ross
Julia Margaret Cameron…………Eileen Atkins
Tennyson/Porpoise…………..….Timothy West
G.F. Watts…………………………….……Sam West
Ellen Terry…………………..…Lucy Briggs-Owen
John Craig…………….…….………Martin Hutson
Mary (the maid).……..Dorothea Myer-Bennett

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