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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Cottesloe Theatre      Winter 2006-2007;    Autumn 2008

Virginia Woolf's 1931 novel is the group portrait of seven friends made up of brief scenes and speeches stretching from the nursery through late middle age. Her method is to let what appear to be meaningless fragments accumulate so that only gradually do we get a sense of the individual personalities and their relationships, the catalyst being the death, midway through the book, of one of them.

Immediate shock aside, this actually affects the others very little, since one of Woolf's points is that we are who we are and tend to remain that way whatever life does to us - looking back at the opening chapters, we can see the adults in embryo from the start.

As a writer made up almost entirely of style, Woolf would seem undramatisable, and director Katie Mitchell and her cast have had to devise theatrical equivalents of the novel's fragmentary method.

Whether they succeed depends to a great extent on your capacity for theatrical experiment and your willingness to make the intellectual leaps from what you are seeing to their literary equivalents.

Director and company have pieced together a style of visual and aural fragments from which the viewer must gradually piece together a sense of the characters, just as the reader of the novel does. This involves deconstructing not only the language but the characterisations themselves.

The performance is made up of a string of probably over 100 brief excerpts in which, typically, one actor will read a character's lines (complete with 'he said' or 'she said') into a microphone on one side of the stage while a second poses or mimes the moment elsewhere and a third provides sound effects in the mode of a radio studio.

Meanwhile a fourth holds a video camera projecting the second onto a large screen while, elsewhere on stage, a fifth may be doubling Number Two's hands or feet for another video camera to cross-cut with the main image, and whoever is left over is handling props or setting up the next sequence.

For the first half-hour of this (until the fragments begin to gel), your impression is likely to be negative. It is almost as if all the tools of cinema had been invented but not cinema itself, and Mitchell and her cast were stumbling their way toward its discovery.

And, as with some other Mitchell-directed works, you are likely to feel that this may very well be a fascinating technical exercise for the performers but that the presence (or needs) of an audience has become irrelevant to them.

In an equivalent to Woolf's method, only slowly does Mitchell allow a sense of the individual characters to develop. While the speakers will remain randomly whoever is available at the moment, individual performers will settle into the visual portrayal of a single figure each, and we will begin to identify and recognise mousy Rhoda (Kristin Hutchinson), domestic Susan (Kate Duchene), hero-worshipping Neville (Paul Ready) and the others. (My labels are simplifications of the director's simplifications of Woolf's characters.)

It is still a heavy slog, there is still the greater sense of a technical exercise than a play, but at least from about the midpoint on we know who and what we are watching.

The show remains a cool and intellectual experience, however, and the things that stick in your mind will have little to do with Woolf and more to do with the ingenuity of the devisers - the way two performers in different parts of the stage are blended onscreen into a single picture, say, or the evocative beauty of a particular screen image, especially when we can see how artificially it is being created..

For example, in a story about individual identity there are a number of imaginative tableaux involving mirrors and reflections, while twice a sudden burst of group tap dancing magically captures the rhythm and excitement of a train journey.

Of course it doesn't all work, with probably the biggest misstep being the decision to make over-explicit the sexual subtext of Neville's admiration of the soon-to-die Percival - he sucks lasciviously on a banana every time he sees him.

While the cast are likely to impress you more with their energy and their ability to remember whether they're meant to be body, voice or stagehand at any given moment, they do master the cinematic technique of stepping fully into character for the briefest of moments and of building a sense of the person out of such widely-separated glimpses.In addition to those already named, all praise to Michael Gould, Anastasia Hille, Sean Jackson, Liz Kettle and Jonah Russell.

Gerald Berkowitz

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