One of the little words that always makes me fear the worst on looking at the programme before the start of the play is 'devised'. Actors and directors are always 'devising' theatre, thinking that improvisation in rehearsal is a good enough substitute for a text and a writer. Generally it isn't. Improvisation can create great scenes but never a great play. That's true even for great directors like Peter Brook and Mike Leigh.
Another of my pet hates is the director who finds it necessary to play around with video cameras and television screens on stage. It's all great fun for those taking part, and no doubt it feels edgy and creative, but it doesn't make good theatre. One of the worst examples I've seen in the last few years was Powerbook, a work devised by Fiona Shaw and friends as part of a 'cutting edge' transformation of the Lyttelton theatre in the final phase of Trevor Nunn's regime.
Director Katie Mitchell's Waves, at the Cottesloe, is a devised work that makes extensive use of video. I hated every minute of it, apart from a brief moment when the camera focused on a tiny model railway. An instant of pure joy for anyone who had a Hornby electric train set as a child.
Strictly speaking, this is perhaps not a fully devised work (though that's what the programme says) but an adaptation of Virginia Woolf's novel The Waves. I haven't read it, though I suspect quite a few hardcore Bloomsburyites in the audience last night had done. Mitchell is a director who's clearly fizzing with ideas; I loved her Iphigenia at Aulis at the National Theatre, but I strongly disliked her updated version of Chekhov's The Seagull because it ignored the social context of the play. I have to say I felt Waves was technically interesting but fundamentally sterile. Like Fiona Shaw's Powerbook, it was hugely self-indulgent and pretentious.
The actors, all dressed like stagehands in black, mill around the stage before the lights go down. A set of tables with four chairs are set out in a line across the stage, facing the audience. There are two video cameras, a giant projection screen, some anglepoise lamps, microphones and shelves full of props on either side of the stage. The cast of eight take it in turns to read from Woolf's novel as their colleagues mime and mug frantically for the cameras while creating a rapid succession of visual and sound effects. It's tricksy, clever and technically quite impressive to see what can be done by pointing a camera and a spotlight at a pane of glass kept sprayed with water to simulate rain on a windowpane. What depressed me was the relentless literalness of the whole operation; when Woolf described a teacup we saw a teacup; when she described a train, we saw a train, and so on. Every sound and every image in the book was faithfully recreated on stage, leaving the actors racing breathlessly around the stage like a bunch of demented ASMs. I couldn't work out which character was which, and rapidly ceased to care. It's better to show than to tell, they always say. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. The whole point about theatre is that unlike film it can drop the teacups and trains and leave the actors to work on the imagination of the audience. Katie Mitchell's approach seems to assume that the audience have no imagination of their own, and so every image and sound has to be painstakingly recreated. Frankly, I felt patronised.
Michael Billington's reaction to this play was to ask Guardian readers whether novels can ever be successfully adapted for the stage. My feeling is that they can't, because narrative and drama aren't the same thing. Some novels lend themselves better to theatre than others, but with the exception of Chekhov I can't think of many whose prose and plays were equally successful. Virginia Woolf and Proust should probably be somewhere at the bottom of the list of writers whose work is suited to the stage.
However when I escaped the Cottesloe last night that wasn't the question that was uppermost in my mind. I think putting Woolf's novel on stage was probably a doomed enterprise from the start, but my real disappointment stemmed from the way Katie Mitchell had chosen to do it. All that frantic effort seemed to be leading straight to a cul-de-sac in theatrical terms.