Mon Nov 24 2008
Photograph: Stephanie Berger
For those who approach Katie Mitchell’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece The Waves with trepidation: Take heart. She leaves out the parts you are worried no one could ever translate (the first bewildering page has vanished), and the elegant multimedia production behaves with (almost) perfect reverence toward the book. In fact, Mitchell’s solution to the insoluble—how to make Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness prose-poetry flesh—so preserves the novel’s odd pockets of cynicism and sudden lyrical suffocations that it begins to slip sideways into your memories of the book itself.
In The Waves (1922), Woolf wanted to describe the eddying streams of identity, using long sensual monologues by six childhood friends and letting them course along like tributary channels in a mainstream. As we read, the divisions—between businesslike Louis, storyteller Bernard, death-obsessed Rhoda and the rest—begin to elide and blend into aspects of one mind.
Mitchell’s company literally keeps the book close, with one of the eight actors reading aloud while the others scramble to physically create the described image. The ensemble has been trained in radio and film techniques; one performer may be sprinkling “rain” from a watering can past a microphone, another peeping out from behind a scrap of Plexiglas, and a third filming the shot. On a large screen above the stage, we see these fragments in cinematic composite: a close-up of a fearful girl looking out a rain-streaked window. We also can appreciate how the company stimulates each sense separately.
Woolf’s novel likewise divides and conquers our faculties—some of its most memorable moments are a terrified child pressing her foot against a metal bed frame and a young man so disordered by passion that he believes his knife no longer cuts. Obediently, Mitchell has constructed a staggeringly clever mechanism to recreate the novel’s tactile onslaught. Though it could, at times, be kinder (Woolf never ridiculed her pining hero by making him suggestively peel a banana), eventually the production swamps us with its relentless amassing of detail. This is a drugging, wonderful, almost dangerous experience; afterward, audience members shook their heads and stumbled a little, as though just escaping from an undertow.