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Waves

Devised by Katie Mitchell and the company; based on Virginia Woolf's novel The Waves
National Theatre production
The Lowry, Salford
(2008)

Production photo
Production photo
Production photo

Leading director Katie Mitchell's devised work based on Virginia Woolf's novel The Waves, originally performed at the Cottesloe in the National Theatre nearly two years ago, visits Salford as part of a short European tour before ending up in New York.

There is no easily connected narrative joining up the various parts of the production as it attempts to capture Woolf's fractured literary style in performance, but there are consistent characters and events that happen between them throughout the various episodes arranged chronologically.

In Vicki Mortimer's design, the stage is dominated by a large projection screen onto which the film sequences are projected. In front of this is a long table where various visual sequences are relayed to the screen via video cameras or where audio sequences are spoken into microphones. In the front corners are further microphones used for voice-overs and for sound effects, surrounded by the various paraphernalia of the old-fashioned radio drama studio that are used to create live, rather than recorded, sound effects.

The whole process of creating a narrative on film is deconstructed and recreated live in full view of the audience. The screen shows an image with all of the elements present (including sound) but a glance around the stage will show that the visuals may be in one part of the stage using a person in half a costume and another holding up a piece of card to look like the sky or a wall, the sounds of the things you see happening are recreated by someone else into a microphone and not by the objects you can see, the voice of the character is spoken by another person and insert shots of different elements of the scene or even different parts of the character's body are created by someone else entirely in a different part of the stage.

The result of all this is a technically very impressive piece of theatre, as the performers scurry about the stage setting up shot after shot in extreme close-up, creating sound effects, speaking into microphones and even, occasionally, acting. The video, from video designer Leo Warner, looks stunning with the help of some impressive camera work from the performers, and Gareth Fry's sound design is faultless.

Comments that would be used as adverse criticism for many productions do not work here; whilst it is true that the performance is rarely emotionally engaging or has no through-line in the story, this is more than just deliberate, it is the whole point. However there are parts that draw you into the pain, the longing and even often the humour of the characters and the situations. There is a very funny seduction scene with a banana, and some clever use of reflections using mirrors and windows.

The problem with these alienation (in the Brechtian sense although not with a Brechtian intention) techniques is that the spectator can easily be sucked into focusing on the process of production rather than the content as it can be a little too much to consider them all together, with the result that you can find yourself watching the filming and looking for the next shot being set up and completely miss the spoken text.

As a production, it is fascinating to watch everything being created live in front of your eyes, and there are moments of real engagement and entertainment within the drama itself but these are intermittent. There is a danger that audiences will come away more with an admiration of technique than a feeling of having really engaged with a great piece of theatre. However there is enough here to keep students of theatre, literature or film busy for weeks with discussions and essays.

The cast has to be greatly admired for the tremendous amount of work they all do onstage during the performance, with some great brief acting moments and very slick manoeuvring of cameras, scenery, costumes, props and other elements to look perfect on screen just at the right moment. It really is impossible to pick out performances from an ensemble where at one moment several people could be creating different elements of the same character (it makes far more sense to see it than to read a description of it). However the eight-strong company of Kate Duchêne, Anastasia Hille, Kristin Hutchinson, Sean Jackson, Stephen Kennedy, Liz Kettle, Paul Ready and Jonah Russell achieve in two and a half hours what would take a considerably larger cast and crew weeks to do on a conventional film shoot.

Until 27th September

Pete Wood reviewed this produciton at the Theatre Royal, Bath

Reviewer: David Chadderton