Putting together a multimedia theatrical version of an experimental novel by Virginia Woolf was never going to be an easy task, but director Katie Mitchell decided to take on the challenge with Waves, which opened last night at the National's Cottesloe theatre. Kathryn Merritt attended the press night.
Set in England between 1893 and 1933, Waves follows the lives of six privileged friends from childhood to middle age as they deal with the chaos of life, friendship, love and loss. They're not a happy lot in general, although there are flashes of humour throughout the production, for example in the scene where Neville shows his desire for the largely absent but dashing Percival by provocatively and noisily eating a banana. (I’ll leave it up to you to make the connection.) What connects these characters, however, is their shared loneliness and identity.
The transitions between the set pieces of the play are marked by a peaceful sea image as well as the sounds of the eponymous waves, and the stream-of-consciousness stories are told not only through speech, but also through live sound effects and real-time video images. The actors (eight in total) man cameras, lights and sound props as part of the production.
The visual images projected on screen have the polished appearance of mini-films, often to stunning effect, such as close-ups of a lonely diner looking out of a rain-soaked window or a woman travelling on the Tube. A quick glance away from the screen reveals the 'how do they do that?' workings, with the tireless actors constantly moving around the stage, spraying water against sheets of clear plastic, holding backdrops of changing wallpaper and using simple lights to accurately convey sunshine or streetlamps.
In a diary entry written before she began her novel The Waves, Virginia Woolf wrote that "Life is, soberly and accurately, the oddest affair; has in it the essence of reality." This description also fits the ambitious production by Katie Mitchell and the company at the Cottesloe.
Waves is on at the National Theatre Cottesloe until 13 January.