The Waves is an exploration of group consciousness, tracking a band of friends from childhood to old age and death through a series of 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 Virginia Woolf's book, it is actually very difficult to pull off as a theatre piece.
The 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 Katie Mitchell's production bangs its brow against the limitations of the theatre of permanent long-shot and crisply defined roles.
The excellent company of actors, all wearing black, are shown manning a cross between a recording studio, 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, insecurity, sexual infatuation - things that are here surmounted only briefly in joint hero-worship of the dream-boat Perceval, who unfortunately dies.
The overhead camera angles and the twitchy surrealism of the shots reminded me of the work of the great Czech film-maker Jan Svankmajer, while the sensibility of a piece drenched in its own pre-nostalgia and desperate to get to the oceanic depths where difference is virtually a solecism recalled for me Raul Ruiz's great work in translating Proust to the screen.
True, at the start you may feel that you have wandered into 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 the National is prepared to go out on a limb on a production of such experimental calibre and coherence.
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