- Technosurfing in Bloomsbury
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In anticipation of Katie Mitchell's dramatization of Virginia Woolf's novel The Waves, I found myself asking not how, as many seemed to, but why. Woolf's 1931 novel is to me so delightful in and of itself that I recoiled at seeing it on the stage. Reading The Waves is like verbal frottage. Why must this rarified beauty and unalloyed bliss be subjected to a director's "vision"? And why must I share the exquisite private joy of reading Woolf's novel with a crowd of strangers in a theatre in Times Square? It seemed like a new form of pornography—the bad new Times Square—taking literature and turning it into a consumable experience of somewhat more than a couple of hours. I was aware that the show came to The Duke on 42nd Street with the impeccable provenance of London's National Theatre, where it was enthusiastically received when first produced in 2006, and that the local press in New York had similarly given the production its blessings.
Mitchell makes plain her approach from what the audience can see on entering the theatre. Inside the black box of the Duke, there are all the accoutrements of radio theatre. Three black folding tables with shiny steel legs occupy the stage, and on top of them are microphones and desk lamps with adjustable arms. Microphones are also arranged throughout much of the rest of the black space, waiting for sounds to be produced. It is easy to anticipate some of the sounds: a square of paving stones, another of gravel all but echo with the footsteps heard later in the show. A rack of costumes is visible to those lucky enough to get seats with views of the entire stage. Industrial shelving on either side of the performance space contains a wealth of objects: tableware, frames, backdrops, hand props, disguises. This opening tableau is a sculpture in stasis, about to become wildly kinetic as the cast later darts frenetically to the sides of the stage again and again to retrieve some set of objects that are pulled together to [End Page 56] form a new but ever dissolving sculptural installation, made ready for video reproduction.
Soon the company putter about the stage, checking the props and adjusting the microphones and the video cameras. They wear anonymous black. The back of the stage has a large video screen. Mitchell displays her desire to expose the stage machinery even before it is given a chance to do its tricks. And I wonder, how does this exposure of the illusions to be created relate to the seamless fabric of Woolf's novel?
Predictably, the play opens with a video shot of the seashore and the sound of the sea. An actress reads the beginning of the book, one of several passages in the past tense that occupy the interstices between the present-tense narrations by the novel's six characters. These passages recount mostly the natural world by the seashore during the course of a single day. Mitchell has staged them by bringing on stand-ins for Woolf, smoking and reading, the only times when something is directly enacted on the stage.
In what immediately follows, Mitchell shows how she will tame Woolf's unruly novel. It is not an easy task. Those who focused on the "how" of the production surely raised a good question. The Waves is a far cry from linear narrative. One can search many of its lengthy passages of carefully wrought descriptions of objects and people and emotions without finding much of any hint of what might be called "action" or "story." Theatre, especially in the big show palaces in Times Square, wants a good old-fashioned plot to hang its costumes...