Following our work on Black Watch during the summer, Fifty Nine was commissioned by the Royal National Theatre as video designers for Waves. For six weeks, a couple of my colleagues have been stoically travelling back-and-forth along the Edinburgh-London rail route. I would sit at my desk and watch as they rumaged through boxes, pulling out wires and adaptors. Cryptic talk of beaches, sunsets, and wide-angled lenses wafted through the office, and then then they would disappear again for another ten days.
So it was a delight last week to see, in its fully fledged form, the show my colleague Leo Warner has created with director Katie Mitchell. It is certainly one of the most ambitious – nay, audacious – projects our company has worked on. The eight actors perform Virginia Woolf’s internal monologues, providing first the voice, then sound-effects. Soon, they take up video camera, film scenes on-stage (often by contorting their bodies between improbable stage props).
The feat becomes rather meditative after a while. One’s eyes are drawn to the screen above the actors, and it is surprising how easily one ‘buys into’ the reality that the actors create. Even though you can see how a scene has been fabricated on stage, the judicious use of the visual language of film means that the projected scene retains its coherence. No computer generated imagery or cheats are used, but some clever uses of angle and light even achieve some stunning scene transitions. Some ghostly images appear behind a character as they gaze into a mirror – is that a coup d’theatre or a coup cinématographique? What medium are we watching? It was great to see new technology being used as an integral part of the creative process, telling stories in new ways.
At least, that’s what I think anyway… but I am biased. What are the opinions of others? Another interesting facet of the production is that it has divided the critics. No consensus or conventional wisdom here, the papers have awarded the show anything from two to five stars! There is something about this fact that I hope makes the show even more intruiging – one can be sure at the outset that the show is radical and provocative at least, even if Virginia Woolf is not your bag.
Some choice quotes:

“But how marvellous that Nick Hytner’s National Theatre is prepared to go out on a limb on a production of such experimental calibre and coherence. ”
Paul Taylor, The Independent ****

“… there seems to me something extravagantly pointless about trying to give Woolf’s words a physical reality … But, although Mitchell and her company are clearly not afraid of Virginia Woolf, the production is a sterile piece of theatre about theatre: a celebration of technical ingenuity that leaves the heart untouched. ”
Michael Billington, The Guardian **

“The nakedness of the method by which these illusions are created prompts questions about the nature of reality, and the technical mundanity, set against the beautiful imagery, succinctly expresses the banal backdrop to an individual’s secret thoughts.”
Sam Marlowe, The Times, *****

I’ll post some more links when I have time. Both the The Evening Standard and the Financial Times loved it, so I’ll probably add their quotes first…

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