August 25, 2008

Waves @ The National Theatre

Three hours after Timon had finished, I was taking my seat in the Cottesloe for Waves. Originally performed back in 2006, the production has been revived for a world tour and, partly because I was interested to finally see a Katie Mitchell production and partly because my partner loves Virginia Woolf's work, we decided to catch it while in London. It's a devised piece based on Woolf's novel The Waves, believed by many to be her greatest work, and Mitchell has a reputation for startling and inventive productions that seem to divide audiences and critics.

I'll make the important admission first: I've never read The Waves and, after Saturday night, I can't claim to be much the wiser. This was by no means 'a play' of the text. Taking inspiration from the structure of the novel, the production dived straight into the text, telling events from the points of view of six different narrators, their words stream-of-consciousness thoughts rather than storytelling. As well as giving us no introduction to the characters, the parts were also swapped around between the eight-person cast. Each character was visually presented by the same actor, but the voice was usually provided by another actor, not necessarily the same each time. This made it extremely difficult to keep track of which character was which, requiring a great level of concentration to distinguish the various stories. I'm not particularly embarrassed to admit that it was only really afterwards, in discussion, that I managed to distinguish Bernard, Ginny, Susan and Louis and make sense of much that I had seen.

In a manner extremely reminiscent of Filter Theatre, a company whose work I love, this production used a variety of media to create images and sounds on-stage, with the process always on display. The company began by sitting on chairs behind tables, all wearing black. Shelves to the sides contained a dizzying array of props and apparatus, and the tables were cluttered with desk lamps and video cameras. Using microphones and a variety of impressive tricks, the company created visual and audio tableuaxs to accentuate the text and create appropriate atmospheres. For example, several slabs of different surfaces including concrete and grass were placed on the floor which actors stamped on to create the appropriate walking sound, or paper was torn in front of a microphone to create the noise of a character opening an envelope.

Much of the action was filmed live onstage and projected onto a large screen behind the company. The live activity was therefore largely geared towards the mechanics of creating these extremely clever images. In a restaurant scene between the characters, three sat at one end of the stage, three at another, all in the same line. Using two cameras, their images were projected onto the screen to show the six sitting opposite one another. Wine was passed between opposite sides of the table by using doubled props and costumed arms; so, as one woman lent across the table, a hidden cast member put on a sleeve that matched hers, leaning into the shot of the other camera in perfect synchronisation with her movements. Clever use was made of double-sided glass for the many shots of people talking into mirrors, only to have a ghostly face of the person they were thinking of appear in the glass behind them. Extreme close-ups gave an intimate quality to many of the spoken thoughts, such as eyes peering through branches or shots from under fishbowls as someone washed their face, giving the impression that we were being allowed exlusive access into their heads.

Specific moments leapt out. One hilarious interlude, as Neville first saw Percival across the room at school, was particularly good, the camera dissolving between the two faces as Neville rapturously ate a banana in one of the least subtle bits of symbolism I've ever seen on stage while Percival went from fully-clothed to, in Neville's mind, naked. The second half of the production started with a series of scenes effective in a very different way. Each of the six friends received a telegram reporting Percival's death. As each envelope was opened in turn, the screen went into grey slow-motion, showing time slowing as the news sank in before they reacted in their own ways. Rhoda's suicide was also effectively realised, a simple blue screen behind the actor's head and a large fan conjuring the image of her standing atop a cliff before ducking out of camera quickly, the screen giving the impression of her fall.

It was all extremely clever, which was also the production's downfall. The technical dexterity of the performers and the incredible imagination that had gone into these scenes couldn't be disputed, but I was left for much of the first half wondering what the point of it all was. It seemed to have been created primarily for the point of demonstrating technical cleverness, rather than for what it did for the text. In point of fact, by the interval, I was wondering if the text was actually important at all, or if it could have been anything. I was somewhat mollified by the second half, though, which seemed to me to use the medium to far greater effect in scenes such as the receiving of the telegrams, where the televisual approach did allow a far more intimate emotional connection with the characters.

The odd addition of Virginia Woolf as an occasional narrator, speaking into a microphone while smoking a cigarette, was an unusual decision - sometimes narrating bits of the text, at other time reading extracts from Woolf's diaries. The intent was clearly to fuse the text of The Waves with the biographical history of Woolf herself which inspired it, but it added a further level of confusion to an already difficult story. Nevertheless, the Woolf character was also used to help explicate the action by providing date and place at the start of each section, scrawled onto a blackboard.

This was a spectacular evening in the theatre, with the company creating marvellous work on a large scale that demonstrated just how effectively video and sound can be created live onstage, and for that reason alone I would heartily recommend this to anyone interested in theatrical practice. The company were truly fantastic in their continual multi-tasking and swapping of parts and technical duties. However, I was disappointed at how subsidiary the text felt next to the technical trickery, and would have appreciated a little more time spent on the substance, rather than the style. I would imagine that people with an intimate knowledge of the text would get a huge amount from this production, as presumably did the company themselves, but as an entry-level introduction to Woolf there was just too much going on.


- 2 comments by 0 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Sue

    We’ve gone right off the theatre lately. We went on Saturday night to see an Alan Bennett play, he’s usually one of our favourites and we thought it would be good as it had Alison Steadman in it who Is a personal favourite of mine – Abigail’s Party is my favourite play of all time but it was disappointing and as we only seem to really enjoy about one production in eight we’ve decided to give it a miss for the time being at least. We have much more fun at the cinema.

    25 Aug 2008, 14:41

  2. rex valentine

    I agree with Peter Kirwan about ‘The Waves’ Katie Mitchell version. Because I am not goverened by political correctness I would go further. Virginia Woolf is one of the most difficult of all Modernist writers. Because of its fragmentation ‘The Waves’ in its original form requires continuous concentration. Mitchell’s version increases the fragmentation and distracts the attention from the words and the personalities of this prose poem. I am not against screen back projection to create visual atmosphere but. if she wants to demonstrate the wonders of modern technology then she should write her own play and adapt that to the technology. not abuse and distract from Virginia Woolf’s unique prose poem.

    02 Oct 2008, 13:01


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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.


The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.


Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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