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In Waves, the new production at in its intimate Cottesloe space, the National Theatre gives us the most poetically imaginative staging that London has seen in many months.

This, a sensuously many-layered response to Virginia Woolf’s 1931 novel The Waves, is an absorbingly multi-media performance work that involves characterisation, narration, reading, music live and recorded, live sound effects, and, above all, the live close-up filming and blown-up projection of detailed action and imagery.

The director, Katie Mitchell, made great impressions in the 1990s with her powerfully atmospheric stagings of plays from Euripides to Gorky. Of late, however, she has become insufferable as a representative of a playwright’s actual text.

But Waves is a tremendous feat of theatrical imagination and aesthetic complexity.

In The Waves, Virginia Woolf took fiction to one modernist extreme. Charting the lives of six characters over a span of years, the novel is a sextet of stream-of-consciousness present-tense soliloquies, although Woolf’s articulation of each voice at times teeters over into preciosity even as she gives us astounding psychological revelations.

All these things are evoked in Mitchell’s version – even a little of the preciosity, but only as part of the Bloomsburyish climate that takes Waves off the page. But Mitchell’s most audacious stroke is to separate the outer person from the inner voice.

So, while one actor speaks Neville’s thoughts, another will show his face, and a third will film it nearby, so that the screen behind them shows us this face in close-up, transformed by angle and scale.

Meanwhile a fourth actor will show us Percival, or rather Neville’s dream view of Percival, another actor will film this, and this too is shown on screen, large and luminous. And so we’re taken deep into Neville’s head.

All the while two or three other actors will create sound effects radio-style, a live string quartet will play threads of music devised by Paul Clark. Narrative itself is always close to breaking down here – and that’s part of the fascination.

The whole is presented as a collage, interspersed with views of the sea (as in Woolf), elsewhere with phrases from Debussy’s La Mer.

This work isn’t perfect. At first, all the sound-effects recall the best running gag in Spamalot (coconut shells as horse hooves).

But Waves casts a rich spell. ★★★★★
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