Wave Theory

Tonight, I sat spellbound… rapt by the drama in constant construction upon the stage (at the West Yorkshire Playhouse) and gripped – if silently – by the vacant seat beside me. This was the second time I got to see Waves, Katie Mitchell’s theatre adaption of Virginia Woolf’s complex and experimental novel The Waves (1931). And for a second time I came out in awe of the complexities of the modern human experience and painfully aware I’d never be able to share adequately in what I had just seen. This time around the sensation was doubly acute – which is quite fitting since the entire performance is purposively and elaborately decentred.

…Someone speaks, yet the words come from another; someone walks, yet the sound of their footsteps is traced by another; someone raises a glass in the dark, yet upon the screen it is seen held in an entire mise en scene; people pass through a revolving door, yet it is only the sound of a battered old suitcase rocking gently upon the floor…

Roland Barthes writes lovingly of Japanese Bunraku puppet theatre, which he describes ‘practices three separate writings … to be read in three sites of the spectacle: the puppet, the manipulator, the vociferant: the effected gesture, the effective gesture, and the vocal gesture’. The connection is made with Brecht’s alienation effect (indeed this is one of its origins), since Bunraku ‘shows the gesture, lets the action be seen, exhibits simultaneously the art and the labour, reserving for each its own writing’:

As Brecht had seen, here citation rules, the sliver of writing, the fragement of code, for none of the action’s promoters can account in his own person for what he is never alone to write. As in the modern text, the interweaving of codes, references, discrete assertions, anthological gestures multiplies the written line, not by virtue of some metaphysical appeal, but by the interaction of a combinatoire which opens out into the entire space of the theatre: what is begun by one is continued by the next, without interveal (Barthes, Empire of Signs)

The three separate writings of Bunraku are wildly extended in Waves. An array of props are stacked up on metal shelves on each side of the stage, as if the whole performance were coming out of a huge, cobwebbed garden shed. At any given time, someone is reading from the novel (in paperback) – copies passing between hands, as others act out the scene, often with tableaux vivants (screened live on stage) constructed before your very eyes using desk lamps and a small collection of props.  Every little action has its sound effects added separately. You watch as someone paces up and down upon a stone slab to give the echoing footsteps that relate to the imagery upon the screen and as described in the pages of the book itself.  With fluidity, yet precision, the actors move about becoming characters, offering voices, adding ambient sound, directing scenes and piecing together the decor.  This is theatre. It cannot be replicated outside of its time and space, it cannot be recorded or transmitted (on my way to the theatre I had news of a digital blackout at work, no internet, no network… yet sitting in the theatre this evening such ‘drama’ was like an alarm clock buried and forgotten on a beach somewhere). Of course, following a performance or event of this kind, all that is left at one’s disposal are the excited gestures and compliments – ‘you really had to be there’! …and in time all that remain are the ‘thrilling’ write ups:

Katie Mitchell’s extraordinary production of Virginia Woolf’s experimental novel The Waves at the National Theatre is that rarely sighted beast, a performance where theatre and video come together so seamlessly and complement each other so exquisitely it is as if Mitchell, her actors and video artist Leo Warner have created an entirely new art form.

Just as Woolf in her 1931 modernist novel was attempting an experiment in form and struggling to bring the novel into the 20th century, so Mitchell – the radical force beating in the heart of the National Theatre – is pushing theatre kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Waves is about the very act of creativity itself, the tools we use to make art and the self we sacrifice to do it… (The Guardian Theatre Blog…)

…the ‘problem’ of Waves can be drawn up in terms of quantum mechanics, in wave-particle theory. From Newton through to Einstein the mistake was to consider matter in terms solely of particles and light in terms of waves. Yet, by the beginning of the twentieth century quantum theory began to reveal the opposite: matter having wave properties (a particle-wave duality) and light discrete particle properties. ‘The solution to this confusion and contradiction is simple once known. Describe reality from One thing existing, Space (that we all commonly experience) and its Properties. I.e. Rather than adding matter particles to space as Newton did, we consider Space with properties of a continuous wave medium for a pure Wave Structure of Matter’ (On Truth and Reality). Katie Mitchell’s Waves provides just such a Space through which all the elements ebb and flow. Actors and setting are never single ‘particles’ but rather a medium, a continous wave medium. Virginia Woolf grasps the workings of the human mind in this same undulating fashion, indeed she was writing at a time when the world shook with this new physics and a new set of artist impressions. She sought to bring the ‘waves’ of our minds to bear upon a shared space and reality, to reveal something further about our own medium and its collective resonances. In fact, as the director notes in an article on bringing the novel to the stage, it is with Virginia Woolf herself that the very format of the adaptation begins:

Woolf wrote The Waves between July 1929 and late 1931. But its genesis can be traced back to 1927, when she recorded in her diary on February 21:

Why not invent a new kind of play – as for instance
Woman thinks: …
He does.
Organ plays.
She writes.
They say:
She sings:
Night speaks:
I think it must be something in this line – though I cannot now see what. Away from facts: free; yet concentrated; prose yet poetry; a novel & a play. [The Guardian…]


Of course, in wi-fi times, wave-particle theory is more easily conjured to mind (or at least conjured upon the fact-finding screens we have before and between us). I sent out numerous txt messages this evening. In part, I knew what was going to happen. I’d seen the performance before. I knew I was going to be faced again with the fact that whatever I saw was immediately lost to the room. But as I sent and recieved those messages (woman thinks:… He does … Night speaks…) there was nonetheless a realm, a combinatoire of interaction, ‘what is begun by one is continued by the next, without interveal’. So, perhaps, after all, that vacant seat tonight was the best seat in the house… for it is precisely all things being ‘out of joint’ that I now want to remember, to gather up from the ‘very act of creativity’ I witnessed this evening, and ‘the self we sacrifice to do it…’

‘Now to sum up,’ said Bernard. ‘Now to explain to you the meaning of my life. Since we do not know each other (though I met you once, I think, on board a ship going to Africa), we can talk freely. The illusion is upon me that something adheres for a moment, has roundness, weight, depth, is completed. This, for the moment, seems to be my life. If it were possible, I would hand it you entire. I would break it off as one breaks off a bunch of grapes. I would say, “Take it. This is my life.” (The Waves)

The waves broke on the shore.


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