Katie Mitchell’s stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1931 modernist novel The Waves is a case in point. It came to the Duke on 42 Street via the National Theatre and some acclaim in England. But I regret to say that it amounts only to an indulgence of pointless effects. Woolf’s interior monologue of solitude and suffering isn’t ideally suited to the stage. But Ms. Mitchell’s video simulcast and awesomely strained sound effects in Waves distract us so much from the various readings onstage of Woolf’s novel that it’s futile trying to appreciate her plotless story, and I eventually gave up.
On one disappointing level, Ms. Mitchell has merely shown us a bad movie being made onstage.
Her frantically busy video work—intended to duplicate the fractured nature of the novel—owes a serious debt to the avant-garde work of the Wooster Group, among others. No matter; the admired British director announced in preemptive self-defense that she wished to “celebrate” her American influences. What’s essential is the trite literalism of her choice of video images.
A Woolf character describes pressing her foot against a bedrail in order to remind herself mysteriously that she’s alive. What then comes up onscreen? The banality of a big toe pressing against a bedrail in massive close-up. Similarly, such laborious images as pouring tea, a puddle fussily created by a close-up of
There’s small consolation in glimpsing the cast’s eight yeoman actors and technicians, who are dressed in black, dashing maniacally around the place in semi-darkness to accomplish all this. But Ms. Mitchell’s near-farcical sound effects take the strudel.
One of Woolf’s characters describes, for example, hearing footsteps outside the door. An actor then stands obligingly in a box of gravel and makes the sound of footsteps. (It sounded very gravelly to me.) A door slams in the spoken text, and another actor therefore slams a door for us. A silken dress rustles by, and … guess!
Waves is a staggering double whammy of deadening effects: It’s not only like watching a bad movie being made onstage; it’s simultaneously like watching a bad radio show. (As it were, “And the horses galloped by.” Cue studio assistant to make clippety-clop sounds with coconuts.)
It will doubtless be said by Ms. Mitchell’s admirers that I am woefully missing the point of her fine multimedia work (not to mention of Virginia Woolf’s novel). And to that I very politely reply, “Coconuts!” Or, as a great man once put it:
There must be rain to pitter-patter
Things don’t come on a silver platter
What does it matter?
Long as there’s you, long as there’s me
Long as the best things in life are free
I say it’s spinach and the hell with it
The hell with it, that’s all!