Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Complex, Brisbane.
Thursday 29 June 2017.
In April 1939 one of the most important, experimental and influential writers in English literature started penning her autobiography. That writer was Virginia Woolf and, strongly urged on by her painter sister, Vanessa, to explore the workings of her own psyche, she titled it “A Sketch of the Past.”
It was perhaps the bravest writing task she had ever set out to accomplish, because she knew that, for her, great introspection was a dangerous and difficult enterprise. Once submerged in the roads and tunnels of her own thoughts and recollections, she knew that she risked passing a point of psychological no return.
Quiet, nervous and plagued by perpetual self-doubt regarding her purpose in the world and writing abilities, Woolf knew that if she probed too deeply into her psyche she would pay dearly for it by becoming further agitated, depressed, and even suicidal. She knew because she had been there before, barely managing to drag herself back from the abyss of darkness and mental anguish that had engulfed her.
Decades later, she would write that three of her best-known novels – 1925’s Mrs. Dalloway, 1928’s Orlando and 1931’s The Waves – “were fiction but also self-analysis. I made myself a game of exposing and assembling fractured pieces.”
Returning to Australia for the first time in almost 20 years, Britain’s Royal Ballet opened their Brisbane-exclusive season with director and choreographer Wayne McGregor’s utterly enrapturing and extraordinary The Woolf Works.
A triptych of contemporary performances that also draws strongly on elements of classical ballet, it is based on the aforementioned novels, and the production is an absolute triumph; indeed, it is perhaps the richest and most profoundly stirring ballet that this reviewer – a lifelong ballet lover and, yes, an admitted Woolf aficionado – has ever witnessed.
Set to an equally extraordinary score composed by Germany’s Max Richter, well-known for his experimental, post-minimal style that constitutes a merging of elements of classical and contemporary music, the first work of the dance triptych “I now, I then” is inspired by Mrs. Dalloway.
While there is an undeniable truth to the fact that those familiar with Woolf’s work will perhaps absorb the most from the performance, the emotion of this piece is so intense and stirring but nor should anybody be left unmoved. For both those familiar with the novel and those yet to discover its multitudinous narrative layers, this piece is brilliant executed and completely absorbing.
Immediate yet imbued with a strong sense of London life in the 1920s, “I now, I then” offers glimpses into a day in the life of Woolf’s titular Clarissa Dalloway, contrasting with that of the shell-shocked soldier, Septimus Smith, a young man utterly destroyed by war, left consumed by life-threatening suicidal urges, post-traumatic stress disorder, then known as “shell-shock.” He is also beset by inescapable visual and auditory hallucinations of his dead friend, Evans.
In this pared down but still insightful portrayal of a single day in Clarissa’s life, we see her past and present, her memories and longings, relayed in the clever double-casting of the role that shows both the young woman and the older one, just as Woolf intended.
This is a smart move on McGregor’s part because it demonstrates the double narrative of Mrs. Dalloway. In depicting both embodiments of Clarissa, much is conveyed: her unhappiness, her happiness, the formality and dis-ease of her marriage, her uncomfortable relationship with her daughter and – perhaps most importantly of all – her longing for her friend Sally Seton, with whom she once shared a single, all-consuming, life-altering kiss that has haunted her ever since. “What if?” young Clarissa wonders and that same question plagues her decades later. "What if?" wonders the older Clarissa, wife and mother, friend and confidante, still in love with a woman she cannot have. Her youthful self is a ghost of sorts, a being that shadows her constantly, never quite letting the past pass entirely.
Principal dancer Edward Watson is artful as Smith while fellow principal Francesca Hayward moves with characteristic grace and deftness, darting on-and-off the stage as six fellow dancers move in-and-out of the tale, presenting what is a deeply wonderful and stirring piece of work executed with entirely fitting delicacy, gentleness and emotional power.
At the heart of The Woolf Works, however, is the unutterably brilliant 54-year-old Alessandra Ferri, an accomplished dancer who will surely be remembered as one of the world’s greatest prima ballerinas. She remains the only one to have receive two highly prestigious Laurence Olivier Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Dance.
Ferri's impressive career has been deservedly massively lauded and she has danced with the Royal Ballet for 14 years. Prior to that, she undertook 12-year-stint with the American Ballet Theatre.
Described by one critic as “an Italian pocket rocket dancer with endless energy,” Ferri was Mikhail Baryshnikov's most beloved protege, and stunned the dance world when she returned to a professional ballet career in 2002 after a seven year break. She has described portraying Woolf, a performance that she remains the only dancer to have given, as “maybe the role that has asked the most of me but also given me the most.”
Her Woolf is wonderfully multi-layered, an exercise in contrasts, at once fragile and strong, conflicted and certain, consumed by the past and fearful of the future, enigmatic and lonely, hopeful but despairing, yet a “frail sparrow of a woman” who revels in the company of her husband, fellow writer Leonard, her artist sister Vanessa and socialite love interest Sally Seton.
By contrast, the Orlando-inspired "Becomings" is almost a radical new ballet sub-genre of its own, a high-tech, Baroque/Punk-infused world that is the glorious bastard lovechild of Ziggy Stardust and elements of old-school sci-fi. Shot onto a black background, the visuals are part-laser beam, part-1980s video game and there is a kinetic, fast-moving energy that characterises this distinctly modern work.
Orlando the novel is a commentary on gender fluidity and sexuality, represented here by both skilful choreography and designer Moritz Junger’s gender-bending costumes, gorgeous chartreuse and lurex gold confections shot through with black reminiscent of the aesthetic of the late, great British fashion innovator Alexander McQueen, a mash-up of the Baroque, Edwardian and fiercely, unapologetically, impressively avant garde.
The performance is frenetic and thrillingly relentless, an endless entangling of bodies, limbs both contorted and extended, boundaries unapologetically transgressed. Brisbane-born principal Steven McRae and soloist Gary Avis both offer up especially electrifying turns in their respective roles, embodying the chiaroscuro that is the balance between light and dark, gender roles and sexual identities with their stage-owning languid swagger and style, angularity and androgyny.
Arguably, The Woolf Works is just that: an exploration not only of literature but also self. It brilliantly draws out the themes in both realms to reveal a kind of split of mind and spirit from body, exploring the experiential and physical selves in a manner that gradually makes clear an amorphous state of consciousness in which difficulty and sadness, hope and fulfillment, are never quite fully confronted and examined.
To that end, "Tuesday," inspired by The Waves, arguably brings this outstanding production full circle with its heart-wrenching and inescapably painful examination of Woolf’s mental illness and eventual suicide using movement and stage sets as austere as those that dominated “I now, I then.”
It begins with a background video of the sea at its most fierce, the imagery slowed down. As the soundtrack of the waves momentarily fades, British-American actress Gillian Anderson slowly, soul-wrenchingly reads Woolf’s suicide note.
Her mellifluous voice and skilful intonation conveys the true emotion and heartbreak that bolsters the words themselves, each skillfully chosen, an image of her scratchy, almost illegible handwriting projected onto the stage wall.
The note itself is soul destroying. Woolf is taking leave not just of the world at large, and a society for which she despaired, but her cherished husband. Each word is carefully chosen, each a reminder to Leonard that it was not his fault, that she adored him, but that unbearable depression and auditory hallucinations broke her, resulting in her filling her coat pockets with rocks, wading into a river and drowning herself.
Dearest, Woolf writes, I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came.
She continues: I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will, I know. You see, I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness in my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good.
I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think any two people could have been happier than we have been. V.
As Anderson’s voice fades, Ferri appears onstage, gently and intuitively partnered by principal Federico Bonelli, executing choreography that is extraordinarily intimate, emotionally wrenching and beautifully conceived of by the exemplary McGregor, a modernist with an inherent respect for classicism whose appointment to the Royal Ballet was regarded by many as both extremely contentious, even controversial.
His choreography echoes the undulation of the waves, Bonelli and Ferri moving amidst an accompanying corps of dancers around whom they move, weaving in-and-out, up-and-down, moving amidst the all-consuming power of the water they represent. McGregor’s choreography and the flawless performances of his two leads convey a litany of the emotions that surely assailed Woolf: anguish, sadness, ambivalence, passion, loneliness, isolation, desperation, untethering, disconnection.
She slowly becomes disconnected from the world around her, from her beloved Leonard, from her own self, and we watch that unravelling as Ferri seems to grow more fragile, more distant and hopeless. Her Virginia is in the arms of Bonelli’s Leonard, but she is already beyond his reach, the waves and her mental illness consuming her whole. She is lost to us, the sound of the waves fading, Richter’s score fading, the stage slowly submerged in darkness.
Although working in times wherein the term ‘modernist’ means different things, Woolf and McGregor have that in common – both broke with convention, both challenged the limits of their respective genres and The Woolf Works is a phenomenal and unprecedentedly experimental and profoundly emotionally resonant work.
It manages to disseminate both clarity and disconnection, a stunning triptych connected by what the woman herself called “my strange life … globular, semi-transparent … the feeling of lying in a grape and seeing through a semi-transparent window.” Woolf Works is a bold, risky achievement that is also a singular and marvellous achievement of which McGregor and the Royal Ballet can more than justifiably be exceedingly proud. One can but wait to see what majesty and magic they conjure with their second Brisbane-exclusive performance, Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale.
(All images provided by QPAC/Darren Thomas and Royal Ballet/Tristam Kenton.)