Virginia Woolf, in Touches of High-Tech
VIRGINIA WOOLF has never been much of a stage presence. She was an avid London theatergoer and larked around at the Bloomsbury gang’s theatrical evenings, but with the exception of the extended comedic skit “Freshwater” she left no formal plays. Attempts to adapt her fiction to the footlights — the stream of consciousness, internalized narratives, a handkerchief’s tragic drop on a summer day — have seldom been successful.
But in 2006, “Waves,” the English director Katie Mitchell’s adaptation of Woolf’s novel “The Waves,” played to sold-out audiences and rapturous reviews when it was produced at the National Theater in London, where Ms. Mitchell, 44, is associate director. Now her production will help celebrate the 10th anniversary of Lincoln Center’s New Visions series, which this year is subtitled “The Literary Muse.” The work arrives fresh from a tour in Britain. “Waves,” a cerebral story of six friends moving from childhood to adulthood to life’s final chapters by way of their disparate, often conflicting, internal impressions, will run from Friday to Nov. 22 at the Duke on 42nd Street.
That run happens to be about a century after the Bloomsbury group came together. If this juncture seems apt for bringing Woolf to the stage, the timing was partly luck. Ms. Mitchell’s solution to transforming the nearly 300-page modernist novel into a commensurate theater piece was a long time coming. Speaking of “The Waves” from her home in London, she said: “I first encountered it at 19, at Oxford, and I probably didn’t understand huge swaths of it. Now I have a stronger sense of what Woolf was aiming for and how extremely radical it was, but though I flirted with adapting it for 20 years, I couldn’t imagine how. I couldn’t find a method fine enough for capturing a work that happens inside people’s heads.”
In Britain Ms. Mitchell has been widely praised and widely criticized for the departures she takes from traditional theater, opera and literary adaptation. Her work has been seen in New York only once before, at Lincoln Center’s Harold Pinter festival in 2001. Known for paring plot to an intense psychological realism that nevertheless implicates politics, social relations and history, Ms. Mitchell has long rejected the conventions of stage artifice in favor of the most minute observation of everyday behavior and gestures. She studied theater in Eastern Europe early in her career and pays close attention to everything from the particular tension expressed by a dancing couple to the subjective toll of war.
Advanced video and sound technology eventually enabled her to evoke Woolf’s story. Working with Leo Warner of the acclaimed video design company Fifty Nine Productions, Ms. Mitchell has constructed what Jane Moss, Lincoln Center’s vice president for programming, calls “a Swiss watch of a production that combines the old-fashioned qualities of a radio play with the most recent technology to convey the fluid, fractured way the brain works.”
Moving around a bare space resembling a sound studio, the cast’s eight actors, dressed in black, act out and record Woolf’s group character study, as reimagined by Ms. Mitchell. They have trained simultaneously to enact, film and edit a story of entwined fates reaching from the 1890s to the 1930s. The action is projected in often extraordinarily revealing close-ups on a large screen suspended above the stage, using a system called Catalyst. One moment the screen shows a face; another an arm clad in a period sleeve to indicate the era at hand; then suddenly a vessel filling with blood or flowers — and, of course, there are waves.
“We smashed a lot of fishbowls and almost caused the electricity to explode when we were first figuring out how to do this,” Ms. Mitchell said with a laugh, “but look how much money we saved on costumes” — referring to the projected images — “while finding a wonderful way of jumping time.”
Her goal is always, she said, to “sharpen and focus” events internal and external, which is why she tried to winnow Woolf’s work down to “its autobiographical genesis,” the premature death of Woolf’s brother Thoby Stephen. That event, in Ms. Mitchell’s view, affected those around him more than they would, or could, ever expressly say. Historical conditions are hinted at as the play unfolds, but thought and emotion are at its center.
With her newfound tools and techniques, Ms. Mitchell said, she worked hard to dispel the “fey, sweet, rosy and charming” image of Woolf that she feels filmmakers especially have promoted. “What I read in ‘The Waves’ is actually stark, merciless and quite terrifying,” she said. “There are lines of almost unbearable sadness about mortality, about death, about identity and loneliness.”
Ms. Mitchell is aware that this American venture could invite comparisons with multimedia productions by the Wooster Group and many others.
“My great fear is of it being called passé and derivative,” she said. “I know that everything I do has been done in different ways by different people since at least the ’60s, and I want to celebrate that. But what is completely different about this is what it requires of my actors, and the new Catalyst system that was literally created for us, which uses incredibly sophisticated technology.”
“It’s about looking formally at how to communicate in the theater today,” she added. “It isn’t enough to just rely on a well-made narrative, no matter how nice the packaging. It’s wanting to see how we experience ourselves.”