Review: The Waves

Max Sutton 26 February 2020

No foam and falsity from this production.

Perhaps Virginia Woolf’s most experimental work, The Waves follows six childhood friends through their lives, charting how they drift apart and come together through a series of interwoven soliloquies.

The first thing to note, and something which cannot be praised enough, is the fantastic physical presence and movement of the cast. If you’ve read the novel, then even before the dialogue starts, you’ll be able to tell who’s who. Playing children is always going to be a challenge, but the potential of this scene to be excruciating was converted into a skittish energy which worked perfectly. The characters were clearly established at this point through distinct mannerisms, which were used to provide continuity as the characters aged.

Image credit: Alessia Mavakala

As the characters go through school and university, you might think it’s a little too near the knuckle, a little too like some people you’ve met during your time at Cambridge, considering that a century has passed since the time of the play’s setting. This is a good thing. In a play about how time changes everything and nothing, it’s interesting that this parallel is suggested. It also fits with the play’s exploration of how several people might actually be one, and one person several.

Once the characters’ paths diverged, it was necessary to have fewer people on stage together at a time, and often one person would have to occupy the large space by themselves for an extended period. Amelia Hills gave a particularly moving performance as Rhoda, especially given the potential for such extended monologues to become tedious. They were aided by precise use of lighting and minimalist staging, which reduced the size of the stage, focusing audience attention. At times, it was so quiet that I’m sure the actors could hear me writing notes, if I was able to take my eyes away from the performance at all.

Image credit: Alessia Mavakala

Caroline Katzive and Ella Muir did excellent work on costumes: each character had a trademark outfit which subtly changed as they grew older. This simple but effective visual cue helped bring out the exploration of ageing, staying the same on the inside while changing on the outside.

Speaking of ageing, this is a long play. The brakes are slammed on after the interval with an emotional solo scene from Ben Philipps as Neville, and the pace slows considerably. At this stage, it’s worth pointing out that the dialogue requires something of an acquired taste. Woolf called this her ‘play-poem’, and this performance emphasises the poetic aspect. Also, it’s pretty heavy. You’ll be made to think about lost friends, unfulfilled destinies, and death. But if you know what you’re getting into, it’s definitely worth it, because these elements are brought out beautifully.

Image credit: Alessia Mavakala

‘Profound criticism is often written casually,’ says Bernard (Jonathan Iceton), and while I can’t say that I aspire to profundity, I will speak casually: six impressive performers, polished tech, and a script which is emotional and thought-provoking. If you want to see some genuinely classic theatre, go and see The Waves.

4 stars.