Kate Duchne, Anastasia Hille, Kristin Hutchinson, Sean Jackson, Stephen Kennedy, Liz Kettle, Paul Ready, Jonah Russell
“They want a plot,” the character of Neville says in Waves, a Lincoln Center Great Performers production currently at the Duke on 42nd Street. “They want a reason. This is not enough for them, this ordinary scene.”
As staged by British director Katie Mitchell, on tour from London’s National Theatre, this may very well be the criticism leveled by audience members who believe there’s not enough plot in this stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1931 experimental novel The Waves.
Though in truth, however, the production places the emphasis on style rather than plot, Mitchell’s theatrical meddling with Woolf’s text is ultimately an ambitious success.
Woolf’s novel is in itself an unwieldy thing. The competing, overlapping voices of six characters – Louis, Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, and Rhoda – interweave as their lives are traced from the nursery through to old age. Particular attention is given to the group’s fascination with handsome young Percival, a man who enters and exits their lives during the course of the action, causing dramatic changes in each of them as a result. In essence, what little story there is in The Waves, inherently more a character study than a dynamic narrative, can be seen as less-than-ideal subject matter for a novel. In fact, The Waves almost seems better suited to a poetic form; as written, the book is not unlike an extended prose poem, full of heightened lyrical language.
In taking on this strange, nonlinear source material, Mitchell seemed poised to fight an uphill battle. In collaboration with her eight-member company of actors, she’s devised the script herself, parsing together bits and pieces of Woolf’s text to suit her theatrical vision. It’s surprising that it all coheres so well.
The gimmick of the production is this. The company of actors, working together in harried cooperation, assemble scenes from Woolf’s novel before an audience. The actors present a dramatic reading of the text, and, as the narration is presented, the scenes created on the stage proper are simultaneously recorded by cameras and projected onto a screen hung behind the actors. Shelves on either side of the playing space house a myriad of precisely arranged costumes and props, which the actors use and discard throughout, slipping on shirtfronts or manipulating miniature tree branches in order to present the precise intended image on-screen. Each member of the company also takes a turn at operating the camera equipment as well.
What the company aims to create are, in accordance with one of the narrator’s early musings, “sounds indistinguishable from sights.” An eerie sound whirrs into the void, the tremor of a violin bow slid across the lip of a bell. A wood pigeon cry is made from the swishing of fabric on a hand. The face of a clock quavers through a bowl of water. Drops of blood, possibly menstrual, fall and ripple outward in a white porcelain bowl. The company can be seen as the foley artists and special effects masters of it all, hurrying about as if behind the scenes at the broadcast of a radio play or a television program, creating the collisions of ordinary coincidences necessary to yield sounds and images. In this way Mitchell puts an audience at a remove from what is supposedly real, presenting us instead with the construction of reality.
At first the presentation of the behind-the-scenes workings that produce the filmic images seems to work merely as a distraction (making for a somewhat slow start to things). Soon, however, the effect begins to congeal. What we’re watching is a series of snapshots of images and memories. Over time, they accumulate, gaining meaning as we gain knowledge about the characters, which we do solely through listening to their own accounts of things. Though the earlier sections, set in the nursery and at school, are mostly fragmented images, by the time the characters attend university and become full-fledged adults, their voices are more distinct, more engaging, and somewhat more narratively focused.
Mitchell’s ultimate focus here is on the passage of time. Each new phase in the characters’ lives begins with the symbolic image of the waves and a description of the time of day, moving from sunrise through to sunset. At one point, the character of Susan lets fall a handful of sugar in a steady stream like the sands of an hourglass, an image that seems to fascinate Mitchell (this image of poured granules is also present in her recent National Theatre production of Women of Troy). These characters are far from unique; they’re as fallible as the rest of us, hurtling toward death. The mirrors Mitchell uses throughout as props are absolutely fitting; these six characters are themselves held up as mirrors to us all.
Though Mitchell’s technically adept production is impressive, the company’s primary success is in keeping us engaged in the narrative in cooperation with Mitchell’s alienating techniques. Each member manages in his or her own turn to create an imposing figure with a fairly distinct personally considering the disparate threads of plot that are interwoven here. What results is a thoroughly transfixing experience. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the principles of the staging (I agreed after an initial period of skepticism), the strength of the writing on a line-by-line level (it’s Woolf after all) and the talent and energy of this well-assembled cast make this an absolute must-see for anyone interested in the possibilities for success afforded by experimental theatre.