To begin at the beginning...

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 11.09.2008

Friday, October 9th, 1931. “Really, this unintelligible book is being better ‘received’ than any of them. A note in The Times proper – the first time this has been allowed me. And it sells – how unexpected, how odd that people can read that difficult grinding stuff!”

Virginia Woolf’s diary note suggests a mix of surprise, relief and pride. The instant success of The Waves, which is no doubt her most dense and richest novel, was totally unexpected. The challenge she had set herself was to “give in a very few strokes the essentials of a person’s character” and to express the “fluidity out there”, the chaos of both life and nature. There is no external narrative, no story or plot, but a succession of inner monologues, intermingled thoughts spoken by six “voices”. These voices belong to three men and three women who meet as young children in a nursery; they then drift apart but come together again at key moments in their lives.

The book is based on a paradox as it makes silence speak. By unlocking the world of memory and feeling, it gives a tongue to the things we do not say. In order to puzzle the reader even further, Virginia Woolf wanted the different voices to be seen as aspects or facets of one single person rather than as separate characters.

Human consciousness and the elusiveness of both identity and time remained central to her later work, too. Thus, in The Years, a novel published in 1937, Peggy, a young doctor, muses while she and her aunt are on their way to a party: “She was alone with Eleanor in the cab. And they were passing houses. Where does she begin, and where do I end? she thought… On they drove. They were two living people, driving across London; two sparks of life enclosed in two separate bodies; and those sparks of life enclosed in two separate bodies are at this moment, she thought, driving past a picture palace. But what is this moment; and what are we?”

By then Virginia Woolf had moved back to a more solid, physical grounding away from the dream-like, lyrical texture of The Waves, which is not the kind of book that you can dip in and out of on a bus journey or turn to after a long night out since you constantly have to piece bits and bobs together. The novel is a complex mosaic made up of echoes and eerily beautiful clusters of images.

Not surprisingly, this is the text that Katie Mitchell, one of the most radical directors working in British theatre today, decided to put on stage in 2006. The production has just been revived at the National in London and will then go on tour, Luxembourg being one of its ports of call. When asked why she had picked The Waves, Mitchell said that it had to be that novel because it was the hardest to do… It has led her to explore new territory with live-produced video footage, sound effects and music played off-stage.

While these various elements help recreate the multi-layered, crammed nature of the book, the stage itself looks like a recording studio, a hive of activity in which intricate set-ups are changed and rearranged relentlessly. Being an audience member is a bit like eating in an open-plan restaurant, where you savour the end-product after watching it being concocted.

A precious challenge and a genuine visual treat for anyone interested in Woolf’s writing or in theatre as an art form. Again and again, surreal close-ups of faces projected onto a large screen break through the unwavering long-shot of conventional productions and allow you to become part of a mesmerising experience. Also, it will be a unique opportunity to meet Virginia Woolf herself: she appears on stage as a narrator, cigarette in hand!

Waw will be at the Grand Théâtre on October 23, 24 and 25; www.theatres.lu

Janine Goedert
© 2023 d’Lëtzebuerger Land