Life in Squares brings to life the revolutionary Bloomsbury group, a collection of friends and lovers who were pioneers of artistic and sexual freedom.
Penned by Bafta award-winning writer Amanda Coe, it dramatises the close, yet often fraught relationship between painter Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf, alongside Vanessa’s complicated alliance with gay artist Duncan Grant.
Together they and their group of like-minded friends navigate their way through the first half of the 20th century, a time when they legendarily “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles”.
The drama opens in 1905 with Vanessa and Virginia struggling to escape the stuffiness of Victorian England. Instead they embrace a bohemian freedom with their Bloomsbury contemporaries Grant, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell and Maynard Keynes. Fast forward to the 1920s and the sisters are settling into marriage and creative success, but all is not well. While outwardly, Vanessa has a perfect life and home it hides a multitude of regrets.
“It’s a real glimpse into a world we know in an academic sense – a lot of the characters are known by their work and being historical figures, but this drama pulls back the curtain and allows us into their world and personal lives,” says James Norton, who plays Grant.
“Someone described the Bloomsbury group as being united by their shared love of Duncan Grant. Despite not going to Cambridge like the rest of them, he does become the essence and embodiment of the group. I loved playing him because he was a happy man. He saw the best in people and people saw the best in him. People became the best versions of themselves in his presence. He was a lovely character to play because he is so far from mundane and bland. I can see why people were attracted to him.”
One of the main focuses of the drama is the relationship between Grant and Bell, played by Phoebe Fox,who first met in 1904. “It is incredibly complicated and sad in many ways, but also beautiful. I think Duncan was probably aware, but in slight denial of how much pain he caused Vanessa. She was the main casualty of his happy-go-lucky lifestyle.
“During their marriage, she becomes a diminished version of herself and completely loses her vitality. Duncan was never able to give her what she needed, but he stayed with her until she died in 1961. With any imbalanced relationship there is always someone who is more of a victim and one who is more of the perpetrator.”
Life in Squares, BBC2, Monday, 9pm