Woolf Works


wwThe Royal Ballet’s production of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works seems to have been discussed and reviewed everywhere recently, and I was very happy to be able to go and see it at the weekend. Woolf’s novels have been adapted and reframed in different ways before, but none quite like this; it works brilliantly, though. The ballet is divided into three acts, each relating to one of Virginia Woolf’s novels: ‘I now, I then’ is based on Mrs Dalloway, ‘Becomings’ on Orlando and ‘Tuesday’ on  The Waves. The whole experience is dramatic, moving, even playful sometimes, and intertwines Woolf’s life and work. Max Richter’s music both directs and echoes the movement on stage, and in the programme notes he describes the unique ‘musical grammar’ required for each of the three texts.

The programme notes (which can be downloaded online) are helpful in exploring the process of depicting Woolf’s works on the stage; the deliberate obscuring of narrative, for example, and Woolf’s creative exploration of language as a medium to depict experience might seem an unpromising place to start, but in fact her engagement with other art forms, including music, dance, art and photography, and the ways in which these appear in her writing, means that these Modernist texts offer possibilities not otherwise fully explored.

“How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth?”

For example, in the first section, Mrs Dalloway can be torn apart and displayed on stage as simultaneous Clarissas perform, the contrast of youth and age which the novel explores depicted movingly beside one another (and just the expression of Alessandra Ferri’s legs is emotional!) Equally, Septimus and Clarissa, who do not meet in the book, share the stage here, haunting each other. Contrary to my expectations, I found from the beginning that there are clear links, if often interpretative ones, to the novels, which made it all the more appealing (I’m not sure how the ballet would appear to someone with no knowledge of Woolf’s works). The filmic sequences which play behind the dancers in this section (designed by Ravi Deepres, who is Professor of Moving Image and Photography at Birmingham City University) seemed to me to root the action in Woolf’s concepts of time and place, especially London of the period. The moving frames which appear mid-stage seem repeatedly to offer vistas and remove them, glimpses through into other worlds which seems wholly appropriate.


The second section is based on Orlando, Woolf’s mock-biography of a man who becomes a woman, living over 400 years, and while the complex narrative of the novel would be almost impossible to contain in an act of a ballet, the sense of it is captured beautifully: paired androgynous figures leap and whirl with glee, offering a binary sense of gender that splits further until the concept of gender – along with time and place – becomes meaningless, an effect which the novel itself has. As lasers shoot across the stage and at the audience through billows of smoke, the spotlit dancers appear suspended in the mists of time, identifiable not through the usual means of dress distinguishable by period or gender, but by their movements. This act is the loosest interpretation of Woolf’s text, and it contrasts strikingly with the final, more sombre ‘Tuesday’, based on The Waves. Water imagery saturates both the movement and the stage here, following on from a reading of Woolf’s suicide note (and, of course, she also took her life in water). The watery visuals work well: waves of movement are complemented by waves of music and also the backdrop, and the sadness implicit in life bookended by death is conjured here, the suicide of Woolf echoing Septimus’s suicide in the first act.


I loved this. For me, the intertwining of text and dance provided a wonderful experience (and it seems critics, and audiences, agree; it’s sold out and has been well reviewed, on the whole). Perhaps it doesn’t matter if you don’t know who the characters are, but for me, seeing versions of Woolf’s characters, and even more importantly, interpretations of her ideas, performed so beautifully was a very absorbing and uplifting experience. The production offers as many approaches, and effective use of different art forms, as Woolf’s own works, and I’m sure she would have been very satisfied with Woolf Works.

The illusion is upon me that something adheres for a moment, has roundness, weight, depth, is completed. This, for the moment, seems to be my life. If it were possible, I would hand it you entire. I would break it off as one breaks off a bunch of grapes. I would say, ‘Take it. This is my life.’ (The Waves)


Images of T S Eliot

NPG 4467; T.S. Eliot by Patrick HeronIn the National Portrait Gallery at the moment is a wall of paintings of T S Eliot by Patrick Heron. I rather like portraits of writers, perhaps in the belief, however misguided, that a good portrait can tell us something we didn’t know about the writer, something which the artist can depict which throws new light onto their work. (I realise this is probably romantic nonsense but I can’t help but think it!) The series of paintings of Eliot provide a fascinating demonstration of how the final portrait (left, 1949) evolved, and indeed of how to paint a poet. After all, Eliot was a complex man, and his work, allusive and intertextual, often dense and sometimes precise, sometimes evasive, requires more than a straightforward portrait. I have to say that I much prefer Heron’s portrait to the Wyndham Lewis portrait (right).eliot

Heron’s portrait was produced ‘from memory very slowly, after a period of nearly three years’. Realism or lifelikeness is not the point here, then: Heron’s comment makes it sound as though the idea of Eliot gently brewed in his head for a while before he tried to produce anything, and the result is Modernist, abstract, and yet somehow highly representative of the man himself. Heron’s work is clearly influenced by painters such as Picasso and Braque, moving from pencil sketches and studies from memory to a Cubist version, which is dramatic and expressive as well as appropriate. And Eliot was a man with an interesting face anyway.

The final portrait, with its double profile, is much more abstract than earlier versions, though the penultimate Cubist version marks a striking stage in its evolution. His features are emphasised yet distorted, and it is an image one can look at for a long time.

You can read about the installation of the display here. For further Eliot immersion, try listening to the poet himself reading The Wasteland.


Will Self sets out his stall right at the beginning of Umbrella (long-listed for the ManBooker Prize), with an epigraph from James Joyce:  ‘A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella’. This is Modernism, with a capital M, reformed and recreated for the 21st century. This is not a populist novel: it is self-consciously well-written, clever, with a flexible chronology which bounces the reader back and forth between times and characters. The narrative is the stream-of-consciousness style employed by Joyce and Woolf, with the allusiveness and intertextuality of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. It’s not the easiest read, but it is spectacularly well-crafted, aware of its own literary nature, and ought to be in the shortlist, in my opinion – even though there were moments when I wished I could be reading something else! What this novel shows, though, is that Modernism as a literary style is far from dead, and works as well now as it did in the early twentieth century.

The text is alliterative, allusive, and peppered with italics, which, I concluded, are mostly quotations: some from other works of literature (including slightly obscure poets such as George Darley) but others are from the characters’ own minds, quoting something someone else has said to them. Like Eliot, Self seems to litter his work with ‘found’ words, from the overheard to the highbrow (King Lear, for example, and, I think, E.M. Forster) to popular culture (The Kinks, the Beatles, ‘Woman’s Hour’ and Mary Poppins). The effect is actually very much like being inside someone’s head – when thoughts, echoes, words and conversations flit in and out of your mind. Consequently, it is a novel where it should be easy to inhabit the characters, but, due to the complex structure of the narrative, it can take a while to get to grips with them, especially given that the italicised quotes give the impression of a multiplicity of voices, though in fact there are only two main ‘speaking’ parts. The main characters are Dr Zachary Busner, a psychiatrist in an institution, and Audrey Death, who has spent much of her life in the institution. The plot zooms between a present (the 1970s), Audrey’s past (early twentieth century – her childhood, adolescence and period working in a factory during the war) and Busner’s old age (presumably now). Audrey’s complex medical history, and the lack of care she has received (manifested by the mispellings of her name) are identified by Busner, and it is this relationship between the psychiatrist, his work and the catatonic patient which forms the heart of the novel, accompanied by the recollections of Audrey, apparently absent in her own present. Self’s relationship with London is always apparent: he describes it in loving, though not always loveable, detail and conjures up the city in different phases of its life.

The subject of madness lends itself to a diffracted narrative. It is intentionally baffling in many ways – just as you think you’re coming to grips with it, the thread of the story seems to draw away from you, but it comes back again – you kind of have to let it wash over you and I didn’t find it difficult to follow. This is challenging reading, though, that makes you concentrate and wants you to think – it’s marvellous to read something that doesn’t explain itself to you – but don’t be put off, it’s also somehow captivating, though somewhat bleak. I didn’t expect to like it but I did – it isn’t always exactly enjoyable, and if you’re looking for a feel-good read, this isn’t it; but it is modern literature at its verbose, discursive best. A particularly good example of the writing would be this phrase: ‘confirming the tight joins of the granite setts already laid out along the rule-straight roadways of his metropolitan mind’. I rather like it.

There’s a great ‘digested read’ on the Guardian website here if you don’t fancy the whole book!