Waves @ National Theatre, London

directed by
Katie Mitchell
Virginia Woolfs 1930s novel The Waves never felt like an obvious contender for adaptation to the stage. Following the lives of six people from childhood in to middle age, it has very little plot to speak of and instead focuses on their internal worries, fears and problems. There is very little dialogue. Therefore Katie Mitchell should be given full credit for endeavoring to bring this to the stage.

It seems a shame though that the piece Mitchell and her company have created relies so heavily on one idea and, although it is a clever idea, it is one that struggles to sustain the interest of the audience over its 2 hour 40 minute running time.

The production sees the actors behaving much like the foley artists in the film and radio industry, so as some speak directly into their microphones, others produce the sounds effects going on around them: the closing of the door, the sound of footsteps on the path, the rustling leaves. While this technique is initially interesting, it often means the thrust of the story gets lost.

In addition to this, the company employs film footage to heighten the tension and mood, often to good comic effect. When each of the six characters receive a telegram containing bad news, the cameras capture them in various poses in taxis, through rainy kitchen windows, in front of mirrors, tending the baby and without words these images succeed in telling us more about what is going on in their minds.

The use of cameras has a secondary effect, intensifying the theatricality of things, blurring the boundaries between what is real and what is staged, through tricks of perspective, lighting and viewpoint. Despite the fact there is so much going on, the play remains problematic, the second half in particularly so, as it feels like more of the same, adding little to what has gone before, and it becomes harder and harder to stay with the production. Moreover, its occasional moments of true beauty and clarity are undermined by cheap gags; in particular a D.H. Lawrence-like obsession with fruit as a phallic object.

This is an admirable attempt by Mitchell to do something brave and different with an unwieldy and difficult text. But for all her stylistic flourishes and the productions inventive direction, there is simply not enough to hold your attention for nearly three hours. The play lacks narrative power and never fully compensate for its absence.

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