A power couple of the British stage, Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner, tumble headlong into theatrical indulgence with “The PowerBook,” an excruciating adaptation of Jeanette Winterson’s 2000 novel they devised with Winterson herself. An initial glimpse of Tom Pye’s video-heavy and technology-minded set suggests Warner moving into Wooster Group territory by way, perhaps, of the through-choreographed moves of Martha Clarke. Instead, a brief evening feels at least twice its length once the novelties of both scenery and venue have worn off. (Production inaugurates the National’s newly tiered, reconfigured Lyttelton, which seats 250 fewer people than the standard proscenium-arch playhouse of before.) The venture travels to Paris in March, where its surface wizardry may elicit the odd “ooh-la-la” while leaving others dismayed at the gulf between some fancy and audacious stagecraft and the crippling self-importance at the material’s supposed heart.
That’s one part of the anatomy left utterly unaffected by an event determined to refract a drearily prosaic affair through some fanciful literary-historical jockeying for center stage, not to mention cyberspace. As with the novel (the seventh from the author of the expert “Sexing the Cherry”), the stage version traces the affair between two women (Shaw, Saffron Burrows) from trysts in and among the baguettes of Paris through to a Paddington Station denouement. Along the way, the pair reunite in Capri when, that is, the years aren’t peeling back to incorporate Lancelot and Guinevere, Francesca da Rimini and the interchangeability of floral bulbs and male balls — that last section the province of the production’s third lead, a gamely frantic Pauline Lynch.
The aim, presumably, is for a narrative to match the liquidity of imagery (projections of water and the like) that aspires to a dreamy, meditative affect achieved principally by Mel Mercier’s Philip Glass-like score. There’s no denying the sense of play given off by Burrows, friskily cast as the banker’s wife who succumbs to Shaw’s eccentric charms: The actress, now on screen in “Enigma,” is as gorgeous a stage creature as she is on film. But discoursing on the immensity and messiness of love, Shaw herself just seems a mess, her commitment to a marathon part in no way excusing showoffy, florid touches that defy credibility. (The frenzied dance interludes, to songs like “I Will Survive,” represent a surreal National Theater plateau.)
On the other hand, it can’t have been easy animating dialogue that tends toward “I can’t be an exile from my own past” and “I was happy in a sad sort of way.” Both leads look more comfortable when they can be comical instead of moony, an eleventh-hour Hello! magazine scenario infinitely preferable to such Sapphic Mills & Boon outtakes as “You were sun and moon to me.” Any putative eroticism is stanched by the mixture of the facetious and the pretentious in which “The PowerBook” becomes mired.
The staging marks the first large-scale endeavor of the National’s laudable Transformation season, a 13-strong lineup of original work spread across two auditoria until September. (The Lyttelton mezzanine has been closed off in favor of a studio-sized Loft space akin to the Royal Court Theater Upstairs.) And there’s hardly an artistic team going that has so fully earned the right to fail, which is why one always looks on — even in disbelief — where lesser talents might have led some auds to bail out.
Perhaps this show’s creators were intrigued by the tilt toward Theatre de Complicite inherent in Winterson’s narrative appropriation of George Mallory, the man whose body was discovered atop Mount Everest in 1999, some 75 years after he went missing. But the evening never taps into the hallucinatory blurring of time and mood and space somewhat better achieved by the book. You’re left with a recipe for tomato sauce, some poor grammar (“the strange story of you and I”) and a stage full of tulips, which is the closest “The PowerBook” ever comes to eliciting bouquets.