"The waves, as they neared the shore, fell in one long concussion, like a wall falling, a wall of grey stone, unpierced by any chink of light. The blackness on the beach deepened..."
The New York City performance of “Waves” by The National Theatre of Great Britain, a work devised by Katie Mitchell and Company, is a tour-de-force but, then, so was the novel, The Waves, by Virginia Woolf, when it was first published in 1931. A New 42nd Street Project of the Lincoln Center, “Waves” ran through November at the Duke Theatre in Times Square to packed Woolfian audiences.
I went to the theatre with a New York friend, an independent filmmaker, Barbara Hammer, who later commented: “watching the coordination, the sound and visual effects, it was as if I were watching the creative process itself unfold.”
As I watched the performance, this is what occurred to me:
A novel like The Waves is written for the 21st century, though it was conceived in the early 20th century. No wonder that, after pronouncing the novel a “masterpiece” (“the best of your books”), Leonard Woolf told Virginia that he thought the first 100 pages were extremely difficult and “was doubtful how far any common reader will follow” (WD: 168-69). At a time when the computer was still an unknown quantity, Woolf was already devising her own method of changing the structural shape of her novels in ways that anticipate multimedia and hypertext.
A subsequent technological revolution has enabled faster comprehension of different ways of looking at experience, of organizing and documenting what individual creative processes suggest. Credit must be given to Mitchell and her actors who, simultaneously, enact and help to shape a particular multilevel concept while so brilliantly illuminating Woolf’s prescient vision by using video cameras, photographic tricks of the trade and sound effects.
From the start of the performance, the audience is confronted with an underground hive of activity: eight actors melting in and out of a nearly dark stage, parts of which are lighted for creating a scene, while also assembling props and sound-making materials in preparation for recording a rehearsal enacted under a makeshift tent. A long, rectangular table, placed in front of a giant-size screen above, serves as a countertop on which other scenes are prepared even while the first one is recorded and projected above, thereby maintaining a steady stream of action. On each end of the table, and disappearing behind the screen, is placed archival storage-like shelving that holds all the readymade props needed for each scene. Also, seen at each end of the table, are podiums, lighting equipment, cameras and tripods. The stage is like a broadcasting studio, a do-it-yourself environment. Each rehearsal is translated into a new image projected above, a still photograph, say, made for posterity while the networking system readies for the next surge and thunderous crash.
On the left side of the screen, set back, there is a makeshift wardrobe of costume parts rapidly donned, as needed, and covering the basic work gear worn by each actor. The actor changes into his or her bit-of-a-costume (a sleeve, or a tie) in front of the audience, often while speaking lines; alternatively, the lines may be ghosted by another actor at one of the podiums. Make-up is applied at the same time, assisted by one of the actors who become, for the moment, wardrobe helpers.
The drill-like precision of each actor, the selection of each prop required, the simultaneous creation of the sound track and the scene performed at the table is mind-boggling. I am reminded of Woolf’s intention for this novel, as she wrote in her diary on 30 December 1930:
What it wants is presumably unity….Suppose I could run all the scenes together more?—by rhythms chiefly. So as to avoid those cuts; so as to make the blood run like a torrent from end to end—I don’t want the waste that the breaks give; I want to avoid chapters; that indeed is my achievement, if any, here: a saturated unchopped completeness; changes of scene, of mind, of person, done without spilling a drop. (WD: 160)
For sure, not so much as a drop is spilled in the performance. At first, the actors are not easily identified, except, perhaps, by Woolfians who already know by heart who says what. And, for that, also, one needs to be blessed with good hearing to be able to place a voice with its soliloquy, a deliberate ploy to enable the gradual emergence of the persona of each actor. From the novel we know them as Bernard, the wordsmith; Neville, the lovelorn intellectual and poet; Percival, loved by all, but self involved; Louis, the outsider; Rhoda, the activist; Susan, the earth-mother; and Jinny, her vanity explicit. All three women actors look vaguely like Virginia Woolf, until each acquires her own persona developed through her assigned soliloquy.
Symbolic expressions are frequently made during the performance. For instance, enacting the recurrent image of the match in the novel, Bernard, in the performance, not the novel, puts a lighted match to the telegram he receives about Percival’s death, and it flutters down, still burning, into the wastepaper bin at his feet. (One hopes fervently that it doesn’t miss the bin in any of the performances). He goes on, unemotionally, signing his “letters” (as portrayed on the screen above), and the enlarged image changes into a black and white scene that fades to nothingness. In a staccato series of events, each friend receives a telegram and the audience is treated to visual, sound-byte-like responses reflecting the recipient’s emotional reaction.
The match image occurs again when Virginia Woolf herself (referred to as “the lady writing,” thus echoing the phrase from the novel) is spotted as another actor strikes a match to light her cigarette, held in a long holder. Somehow, as she reads from her book in her melodic upper-class voice, the moment solidifies—there is Virginia—amid the ‘busyness’ (or flux) of the company around her.
Then there is the curious scene of the banana (a somewhat controversially received image) that appears on the big screen. It is a compelling moment as Percival self-consciously munches on a banana with sidelong glances at Neville. Aware of Neville’s long, intense gaze, Percival abruptly bites off the end. As the New York Times critic, Ben Brantley, has observed, the episode offers ‘a sexual joke that seems out of place.” Yet, is it? Throughout the novel, sexual activity is frequently alluded to in Woolf’s “poetic-abstract” style. Describing an undergraduates-at-play scene, Neville does “say” (as a friend pointed out to me):
Look how the willow shoots its fine sprays into the air! Look how through them a boat passes, filled with indolent, with unconscious, with powerful young men. They are listening to the gramophone; they are eating fruit out of paper bags. They are tossing the skins of bananas, which then sink eel-like, into the river. All they do is beautiful. (W 82)
It is time for an interlude: the wave surges and crashes, and the underground work begins again for, later in the story, Neville’s past love life is recalled as he mourns the losses of days gone by.
Another sexual scene is enacted as Rhoda, seen sitting alone at a table in the Hampton Court restaurant, though united with friends, feels (and the audience sees) an unidentified, unattached male hand exploring her thigh under the table, a touch from which she rapidly, fearfully, takes flight. The encounter between Percival and Neville is longer lasting than the one involving Rhoda, which is over almost before it registers.
Once one is oriented to the complex management of the performance itself, special sound effects are heard introducing an orchestral-like background of studio-made rhythms. The actors sing, hum, and/or tap dance, or just tap their feet, tap, tap, tap. They shuffle through carefully strewn leaves, scattered pebbles, or stamp upon squishy cushions. There was the sound of a door opening and closing, suitcases being moved, or rocked. The sounds progressed to familiar sound-bytes of instruments, handmade, from the sound of a bow drawn across the rim of a jar, or a bowl filled with water. Then we hear the brief sound of an organ—promised early on in one of Woolf’s diary notes. It had survived the endless creative process of re-writing. The sounds echo the rhythm of the waves.
It is only after the intermission, the most melancholy part of the performance, that, perhaps, the sound seemed overdone, like canned music in a soap opera. Once again, the attention is jarred, as an incongruous note is struck at a time when, aesthetically, silence might have sufficed. Yet, however, this is entirely in accord with Woolf’s pattern-making, of creating a crescendo, a surge of sound, a howl, a bite, signaling the end of a drama that, in the experience of her reality, will begin all over again.
For Woolf, the sounds, the rhythms, the symbolic expression, the word, the repetitions, the patterns were all there, unifying forces making, simultaneously, a whole (to the sound of the pounding waves) out of the experience of life as she saw it. Yes, surely she would have been proud of the National Theatre’s performance of “Waves,” and would have enjoyed it.
Artist and common reader
Brantley, Ben. “Six Lives Ebb and Flow, Interconnected and Alone.” New York Times 17 Nov. 2008 HYPERLINK http://theater2.nytimes.com/2008/11/17/theater/reviews/17wave.htm
Woolf, Virginia. A Writer’s Diary. NY: Harcourt Brace, 1954.
—. The Waves. NY: Harcourt, 1959
CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT IVWS