BBC Radio 4 Extra, 17-18 May 2011
Virginia Woolf's The Waves (1931), also directed by Davies, was transformed into a voice-drama for multiple voices that did not so much follow a linear narrative but resembled a series of variations on a theme.
Ostensibly a meditation on birth, marriage and death, Davies' production was heavily underscored by the theme of water. The sound of the waves could be heard throughout, forming a backdrop to the action and the dialogue, emphasizing the theme of timelessness. The characters might be born, live and die, but the waves kept crashing, ebbing and flowing on the coastline. The cast kept returning to the idea of time and its inevitable progress, despite their vain attempts to stall it.
Davies' reputation has been founded on a series of films resembling tone poems such as Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), and my own particular favourite The Long Day Closes (1992), in which mood and emotion assume more significance than narrative drive. The same also applied to The Waves: once we had become accustomed to the adaptation's discursive structure, we could enjoy the dialogue, which ebbed and flowed in a fashion strongly reminiscent of the waves.
Davies' cast emphasized Woolf's adept use of language, where the sound assumed more importance than the sense. Phrases were delivered with onomatopoeic solemnity; alliterations lulled us into a mood of somnolence, just as if we were listening to the waves. Davies underlined the book's experimental structure, as Woolf uses words not as a means of communication but rather to create mood and/or feeling. This technique might be termed 'modernist,' but Davies emphasized how beguiling it could be, particularly through the medium of sound.
At the same time the production communicated a strong sense of place through the use of London street-names. The protagonists might have been engaged in an existential struggle against time, but they were well aware of the world around them - just like Woolf herself, a member of the Bloomsbury set who seldom moved out of London except to go to her house in rural Sussex, where she ultimately committed suicide.
Davies' production centered round two incidents; the death of Percival in his mid-twenties, which jolted the rest of the cast into an awareness of their own mortality. Susan (Geraldine James) and Bernard (John Cartwright) expressed the mood aptly, as they understood that Percival's death was part of the order of things, and nothing could be done to resist it. At the end of the adaptation Bernard delivered a long soliloquy acknowledging his powerlessness to control time; however he did not view this negatively. Once he had accepted this idea, he could look forward to a happy, if somewhat curtailed life.
This was quite simply a brilliant production from 2007, performed by a multi-talented cast including Jane Lapotaire, Don Warrington and Janet Suzman. It confirmed Woolf's deserved reputation as one of Britain's major voices in twentieth century literature.