It’s been a good week for literary adaptations at the National. Only four days after the opening of Nicholas Wright’s adaptation of Emile Zola’s play, Thérèse Raquin, in the Lyttelton, comes Katie Mitchell’s new devised piece based on Virginia Woolf’s 1931 novel The Waves. You couldn’t ask for a more stark contrast between two productions.
Waves opens with eight actors on stage dressed in nondescript black clothes, seated or standing around a long central table. To the left and right are two large, long, quite ordinary metal-frame shelving units such as might be found in anyone’s garage. On these are arranged a tantalising array of props, curios, and general ephemera. The table bears several ordinary desk lamps, microphone stands, and a number of DV/video cameras. Behind the table is a large dark projection screen.
Mitchell’s approach to [The] Waves is to create countless imagined cinematic moments from the book, in real time, projected onto the screen behind the actors – looking like refugee out-takes from a rogue Merchant Ivory production – while at the same time allowing the theatre audience to see the person holding the camera, the people creating the sound effects, and also to see that the actor is not really in the bed/behind the bushes/standing on the beach depicted. This technique continues throughout in a near-impossible barrage of invention and improvised camera trickery. The difficulty is deciding where to look. It is at once both hugely exciting as an idea, and intellectually draining, not least when trying to keep track of the stream-of-consciousness narrative at the same time.
This staging creates beautiful moments: a hastily assembled bed on one of the tables, complete with iron bedstead, occupied by a restless sleeper, cross fades from a close-up on the actress’s face to an unexpected bird’s eye view; the sound of hand writing on a blackboard accompanied by two different sound effects, of chalk on board, and then board-duster erasing the words, so seamlessly, that it takes several viewings to notice the sound effects are not being performed by the same actors. This is a recurrent experience throughout the piece – suddenly realising that sounds which seem to be intrinsic parts of what you are seeing are in fact coming from a totally different part of the stage. It is both disorienting and refreshing – there is no secret made of how effects are created, yet it continues to surprise again and again. As a means of making an audience stop taking the world for granted, it is a masterstroke; one which marries perfectly with Woolf’s sensuous, fragmentary text.
If it sounds terribly high-brow and unwatchably postmodern, there is also a surprising amount of humour: Paul Ready’s Harry Potterish portrayal of Neville’s crush on the silent Percival (Jonah Russell) involves a suggestive banana-eating sequence, accompanied by near-orgasmic sound effects. At another point, a tiny toy train is filmed whizzing across its miniature landscape – the disparity between the attempt at this ‘special effect’ and the little train set on the stage is oddly very funny indeed.
Once the initial thrill of the staging has begun to wear off, one does begin to notice little breaks in the rules that the piece has set itself – external sound effects; the live music played off-stage/behind the screen; the use of stock footage to accompany the ‘italic’ passages from the novel all interfere with the notion that everything is being created on stage. Similarly, in the compromise between the performers being both neutral and acting in period costume there are occasional anachronistic irritations.
This is not an ‘adaptation’ of Virginia Woolf’s novel, this is a wholly new, completely original piece of theatre that has been explicitly marketed as being ‘suggested by…’ the novel. As a piece of theatre, this is wholly, wonderfully detailed, complex and absorbing. And while the piece is not without artistic precedents – Fecund Theatre’s Edinburgh Fringe production of the Cherry Orchard springs to mind – at the end of the day, it still feels quite incredible to see something so whole-heartedly experimental staged at the NT. It is exciting to see a production at the country’s flagship theatre which puts it on the same map as The Wooster Group and Forced Entertainment. This show makes the strongest case yet for the genius of Nicholas Hytner’s varied and inspired programming at the National. Long may it continue.