There are actors in and out of character, but it’s not exactly a play; most of the action is onscreen but it’s definitely not a movie; there’s a tap-routine but it’s defiantly not a musical. So what is it? The National Theater’s Web site describes maverick director Katie Mitchell’s production as “a fragmented and dreamlike tale of friendship, loss, identity and love.” That’s accurate, if a trifle vague. What’s certain is that “Waves” is an artistic one-off that is both supremely fascinating and ultimately frustrating in equal measure.
More precisely, it’s an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1931 groundbreaker “The Waves,” which helped define literary modernism. Within the frame of the depiction of a seascape over one day, the book is really a group portrait of childhood friends who meet up again and again across decades.
What made it so extraordinary then — and now — is its form, more extended prose poem than standard-issue novel. Although definite events occur in their shared lives, linear narrative is abandoned in favor of multi-strand stream-of-consciousness.
The brilliance of Mitchell’s production is that it leads auds to an understanding and theatrical realization of Woolf’s technique without ever resorting to any kind of introductory explanation.
Vicki Mortimer’s set, a dark box with a gray back wall, resembles a 1930s recording studio complete with microphones. The only light comes from six Anglepoise lamps plus a couple of narrow strips of working light on each side, illuminating walls of perfectly chosen props and little squares of contrasting surfaces for the creation of sound effects.
Adopting Woolf’s well-bred, cut-glass tone, Kristin Huchinson begins by reading from the novel as the sound of waves crashing lends mood to a static shot of a shoreline appearing on the back wall. It looks as if this will be little more than watching a studio recording of the novel with video highlights. Mercifully, things move swiftly into a different league.
The friends’ story is purposefully ordinary, but the telling of it certainly is not. The eight actors dart in and out of character to video each other. Shot in minute close-up, the characters are splashed across the back wall while their inner thoughts are voiced by another actor.
It’s a complex but winning effect, akin to watching a film with subtitles that both complement and contradict what is being seen. By separating sound and vision, Mitchell has created a gap in which a character’s thought processes can be brought to the fore in a way far more complicated to describe than to witness in the theater.
Mitchell’s work has long been short on humor, but this dramatic gap provides unexpected and welcome opportunities for wit. In love with Jonah Russell’s unattainable Percival, Paul Ready’s superficially calm, secretly desperate Neville eats a banana in consciously suggestive fashion, filmed in comic close-up, accompanied by Michael Gould’s amusingly over-the-top close-miked sound effects.
There’s also wry fascination in watching a ravishing screen image of Anastasia Hille’s face underwater and simultaneously seeing it being created live in more prosaic fashion by the cast with a goldfish bowl, a water effect and one of the two cameras. All the while, contrasting moods are captured by snatches of evocative period music and a melancholic score for live string quartet by Paul Clark.
On a purely technical level, the acting company, co-creators of the work, are astonishing. In addition to constantly switching from being actors to being narrators of each others scenes, they also film and stage-manage everything. One minute they’re holding a sheet of colored card to provide a new background to a shot, the next they’re dressing the next scene or becoming Foley artists, scrunching gravel and miking their echoing footsteps.
Sadly, however, the ingenuity begins to pale. The novel’s diffuse early sections push auds’ patience to the limit. With so many characters to present, it’s a dangerously long time before we have enough information for any narrative to become clear.
Worse, this unique proposition fails to earn its intermission. The sole reason it has one is because of the work’s unwieldy length. Its inclusion is a structural disaster, the broken-backed second half merely continuing with nothing more developed to offer.
Bizarrely for a piece that so theatrically reimagines its source material, Mitchell has stuck too faithfully to the idea of reproducing the novel. Had she performed radical surgery and brought her version in within a single 90-minute span, she and her co-creators might have had a masterpiece on their hands. A shortened version could be a major event on the festival circuit.