Overlooking minor gripes

Tom Williams on Waves, Katie Mitchell’s stage production of the Virginia Woolf classic

Katie Mitchell’s foray into multi-media theatrical performance seems a far call from her meticulous treatments of Chekhov and Ancient Greece. Yet it a similarly minute attention to detail that lies at the foundation of this production. Waves, which premiered at the National Theatre in late 2006, is a particularly apt guinea-pig for the technophilic Mitchell, possessing a notoriously elusive narrative which deliberately discards linearity in favour of layers. Virginia Woolf’s novel is thus sufficiently malleable to be devised into theatre whilst calling for different media to capture the spirit of the writing.
Mitchell’s adaptation, unlike so many other stage adaptions of books, does more than justice to the tone of the novel, engulfing the senses of the audience in a similar way to what Woolf’s does to her reader. The production consists solely of Woolf’s own words but never falls into the trap of mere narration. Like the novel itself, where constant refrains of “he says” and “she says” indicate six disparate dramatic monologues as opposed to a conventional narrative, the characters come bounding out of the text. Mitchell does far more than provide the soliloquies from the original work – through snippets of live film projection and sound effects, she gives the audience a symphonic whole. Each fragment lays on top of one another to amount to the sum of one single moment of one individual (either Rhoda, Louis, Ginny, Bernard, Susan or Neville), allowing the audience to experience it from the character’s own perspective. Katie Mitchell, along with her video artist Leo Warner, provide fleeting images of an eye behind a tiny branch, a face from beneath a bowl of water and a model train rushing past. It is such ephemeral visual effects that, when accompanied by the dramatic monologue and ambient soundtrack, create such intimacy with Woolf’s characters.
Mitchell’s piece is very much an ensemble production. Each personal moment only exists within the myriad of activity that is taking place onstage leaving the audience simultaneously involved and removed. In a particularly clever moment, the six characters (and Percival) are at dinner, which on the film projection seems as if they are sitting opposite one another when in fact the actors are all facing the audience. As one reaches over to offer some wine or shake another’s hand, an actor wearing one sleeve of the same attire passes his hand over to the recipient in perfect synchronicity. So meticulous is this movement that if one were to simply watch the projection, one might not know any different. It is the synthesis of the action with the live visual and audio effects that, like in Woolf’s own text, allows the audience to step back and appreciate the artistry of the artifice whilst being utterly enamoured by the characters.

The production is not without its flaws; and with a book as rich as The Waves, key factors are bound to be omitted. The extracts from Woolf’s own diary which are interspersed throughout the productions often feel a little forced and at times completely esoteric. Similarly, one might have qualms about the equation of Woolf (who was played with an almost comically RP accent) with the narrator of interludes about the waves. And certainly, it can be noted that Mitchell leaves Bernard’s dense and terse soliloquy about the eclipse almost completely untouched (perhaps she deemed that section too impenetrable even for her). Yet, in a production that encapsulated the very essence of a seemingly unstageable book and pioneers a new theatrical form, those minor gripes can and must be overlooked.