First Night: The Waves, Cottesloe, London

National's gamble on this experimental Woolf adaptation pays off
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The Independent Culture

I approached this piece, devised by Katie Mitchell and her company from Virginia Woolf's novel The Waves, somewhat gingerly. Not because of any doubts about this director who, to be sure, divides critics and audiences. It's precisely what some others wince at in her work that gives me cause for wonder: the pure, uncompromising integrity with which she executes the particular vision she has chosen for a project.

No, my qualms were caused by the last stage version of this author's work that I saw, which (perhaps because she puts her emphasis on consciousness rather than plot) is fully a decade ago. There is a character in To The Lighthouse called Charles Tansley. He's a rather obnoxious trainee-academic at Balliol (as I once was), who is below-the-salt socially (as I was/am) and who's inclined to get up people's noses by being teacher's pet (as I do/did). I was just totting all these horrid correspondences with some dismay, when I noticed a further traumatic point of resemblance. I was dressed almost identically that night to the actor playing Tansley onstage. It's a moment from which I have yet fully to recover.

The Waves is an exploration of group consciousness, tracking a band of friends from childhood to old age and death through a series of self-communing monologues, interspersed by impersonal bulletins on the progress of the sun as it interacts through the course of the day with the sea. Though there are a number of stage-like elements to the book, it is actually very difficult to pull off as a theatre piece. Mitchell's ingenious and incrementally moving solution is to go for broke. Just as Woolf's book beats its head against the bars of the conventional novel of character and narrative, so Mitchell's production deliberately bangs its brow against the limitations of the theatre of permanent long-shot and crisply defined roles.

The excellent company of actors are shown manning a cross between a recording studio, replete with sound effect props, and a television studio, where we watch people being filmed for the simultaneous and surreally intense close-up shots.

The piece is about the extent of our profound craving to feel part of a wholeness greater than individuality and the contrasting strength of our compulsion to retain the ego that feels jealousy, social insecurity and sexual infatuation.

The overhead camera angles, the twitchy life-of-their-own surrealism of the shots of epitomisng objects (such as successive plates at a crucial dinner) reminded me of the work of the great Czech film maker Jan Svankmeije.

True, at the start you may feel that you have wandered into the cell of a sect whose obscure practices you have been left to pick up on the hoof. And true, too, there is a thuddingly unfunny visual about gay infatuation that involves an avidly chomped down banana. But how marvellous that Nick Hytner's National Theatre is prepared to go out on a limb on a production of such experimental calibre and coherence.