On the night of its seventeenth performance, Woolf Works opens with sounds of London; Big Ben, the distant rumbling of cars, all of which weave together to form a soundtrack of Mrs Dalloway’s post-war London. A recording of Virginia Woolf herself plays over the city’s sounds: ‘Words, English words are full of echoes, memories, associations – naturally. They’ve been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries.’ The recording, taken from a BBC radio broadcast titled ‘On Craftsmanship’, summarises Woolf’s ongoing chase for authenticity: with her truly unique tone sewed into each sentence, and her fresh take on linearity in novels, she almost certainly caught with both and captured.
The first act, ‘I Then, I Now’, focuses on one of Woolf’s undoubtedly most well-known works, Mrs Dalloway. Clarissa Dalloway is double-cast by Mara Galeazzi and Yasmine Naghdi, allowing Wayne McGregor to portray the older and younger Clarissa side by side as the characters communicate simultaneously. As they weave in and out of three rotating frames, by Paris architects Ciguë, their bodies tell the story of sexuality, difficult choices and the goings-on of just one day in the life of Clarissa. Galeazzi appears more certain in her movements; grounded, whilst Naghdi is timid, adrift. Accompanied by Max Richter’s beautifully atmospheric score, Clarrisa’s famed walk through London comes to life with Ravi Deepres’ projections of a sooty Bloomsbury. As these projections cast over the set and cover Galeazzi, she strides, her large brown eyes cast forward. This storyline weaves in between the heartrending parallel plot of a shell-shocked WWI veteran, Septimus Smith, who is hauntingly portrayed by Matthew Ball. Smith’s battle with post-traumatic stress is illuminated by his communications with his wife, Lucrezia and psychiatrist Sir William Bradshaw. In one particularly poignant moment, he is seen pulling at his skin, as if to tear away from his state of uncertainty, and the memories of the war that haunt him, whilst the vision of his friend unsuccessfully tries to help.
The second act, ‘Becomings’, contrasts vastly to the first. Based on Orlando, Woolf’s only truly linear novel on time travel and the fragility of gender. On stage is a black, reflective panel which runs down the centre of the stage and creates the image of a dark river. The young male Orlando, played by Alexander Campbell, is surrounded by many noblemen and women, most of which are clad in decadent, strictly gendered Elizabethan costumes and ruffs. These scenes of extravagance and clear gender division are gradually stripped away until gender is blurred and fluid as the protagonist transforms from male to female as they go. This act combines Max Richter’s scores with rumbling electric, techno melodies which entwine and contrast. The opposing styles exhibit Orlando’s ominous journey through 300 years throughout the act. Lucy Carter’s lighting largely comes into play in this act: mirror-like lasers which create a glassy prism of deep-blue, sky-like hues on-stage. Dancers flow through like the drifting clouds cast within created by the shadows of smoke. This borderline sci-fi staging ties in with the time travelling, futuristic themes within Orlando.
The third act, ‘Tuesday’, is the most profound and hard hitting of the three. It opens with the voice of Gillian Anderson reading Woolf’s suicide note, ending with the eerie words: ‘I don’t think two people could have been any happier than we have been’. A backdrop of a dark, ever-moving grey sea shows waves crash in slow motion, slowly picking up pace throughout the scene. Woolf, played by Mara Galeazzi, stands very still in front of this, and begins to move slowly, solemnly, hypnotic in her movements to the lull of Richter’s bass-rich score. Solo soprano Carly Owen’s enchanting falsetto notes adds a solitary tone which entwines with Galeazzi’s movements. Children rhythmically play, laugh and skim stones. ‘Tuesday’ focuses on The Waves, Woolf’s most poetic, strongly autobiographical work. It responds to her sister’s maternal instincts and Woolf’s life without children of her own. Towards the end of the act, the music builds. Several dancers weave around Woolf, pulling and toying her like tormented thoughts, envisaging the stages of her mental illness, before she gently falls to the ground in defeat.
The notes of death in this act run parallel to Septimus’s death in ‘I Now, I Then’, leaving a rounded, heartrending end to a challenging, daring ballet that pushes boundaries within its genre. The triptych structure of Woolf Works adheres to her collage-like writing, which often reads as a collective selection of non-linear narratives. This, along with the collaborative style of directing from Wayne McGregor, keeps this performance true to her style.
These three worlds, which the dancers and artistic staff at the Royal Opera House build, contrast and combine in a unique way that represents both Woolf’s life and writing so accurately. Both this ballet and Woolf, throughout her life, tried to find a form of expression. They both strive to centre their art. Woolf constantly had to battle against her mental health to do this: Woolf Works mirrors this never-ending struggle. In this process, this ballet becomes as non-conventionally balletic as Woolf’s writing is non-conventional, which in itself is truly authentic. Quite simply, Woolf Works works.
By Abi Lofthouse
A Triptych by Wayne McGregor
Royal Opera House
21 January – 14 February