This welcome revival of Woolf Works confirms it to be the most important full-evening work to enter the repertoire of The Royal Ballet, thus far, in the twenty-first century. Although necessarily a programme that looks to the past for its inspiration, thematically attached to the life and selected works of Virginia Woolf, an author most prolific during the 1920s and 30s, it is very much a ballet of today, featuring an outstanding modern score by Max Richter (soon to be released on CD) and stunning designs.  

Alessandra Ferri and Gary Avis, <i>Woolf Works</i> © Tristam Kenton | ROH 2015
Alessandra Ferri and Gary Avis, Woolf Works
© Tristam Kenton | ROH 2015
Conceptually, Woolf Works sits between a full-length production and a triple bill; comprising three ballets that stand alone just as distinctly as the novels that inspired them; and, yet, it would seem inappropriate for any to be performed in isolation. The programme follows the chronology of the novels, beginning with I Now, I Then, inspired by Mrs Dalloway (1925); then Becomings, from Orlando (1928); ending with Tuesday, linked to The Waves (1931). The production begins with the only extant recording of Woolf’s voice (made by the BBC, in 1937), speaking, in the surprisingly clipped, passionless accent of middle-England, about language and the crafting of words. Tuesday is also introduced by Woolf’s words, but spoken by the actress, Gillian Anderson; being the suicide note Woolf wrote for her husband, Leonard – in March 1941 – before loading her coat pockets with stones and drowning herself in the River Ouse.

This first revival provided a renewed opportunity to appreciate the relevance of each section to the novel that inspired it. The literary association is perhaps most profound in I Now, I Then and although none of the performers are identified by character, it is possible to identify the cast of Mrs Dalloway from the sequence of events, on stage. Ravi Deepres’ grainy vintage film of bygone London splashes over the slowly revolving architecture of Ciguë’s impactful set design, presenting the scene for Clarissa Dalloway’s day, spent organising her society soirée for that evening but full of meaningful thoughts about her life. Memories of a brief lesbian flirtation are represented by a fleeting kiss; and the dislocated, exaggerated movement of Edward Watson seems absolutely right for the broken, shell-shocked war veteran, Septimus Smith, whose suicide, later in the day, parallels the insignificance of Mrs Dalloway’s party.

Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward, <i>Woolf Works</i> © Tristam Kenton | ROH 2015
Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward, Woolf Works
© Tristam Kenton | ROH 2015

The relevance of the middle section to the literature that inspired it was driven more by costume, than the overt literary associations of the opening ballet; and, this despite Orlando being Woolf’s closest representation of a linear narrative. Her story of a young nobleman who lives three centuries without aging (mysteriously changing gender around the age of 30) was written as a parody of the family history of Woolf’s close friend (and occasional lover), Vita Sackville-West. It is especially remarkable for Lucy Carter’s scything architectural patterns of light, sometimes stretching out into the auditorium; and for the extraordinary costumes, designed by Moritz Junge: an elaborate, golden Elizabethan gown arranged over a farthingale (rigid cage), was worn by Eric Underwood; and Watson seemed to change costume each of the many times he returned to the stage, including golden pantaloons and a black hoop, like a modern tutu, around his waist. Which, if either, was Orlando? 

Eric Underwood and Sarah Lamb,<i>Woolf Works</i> © Tristam Kenton | ROH 2015
Eric Underwood and Sarah Lamb,Woolf Works
© Tristam Kenton | ROH 2015

The final section, designed by Wayne McGregor himself, was dominated by the poignant reading of Woolf’s painful letter of farewell and a giant backdrop showing the slowly-moving black and white film of waves breaking on an unseen beach. This almost imperceptible movement framed an arresting finale that seemed perhaps more relevant to the suicide letter, which Woolf had headed Tuesday, than it was inspired by the novel, written ten years prior to her death. The Waves is essentially a collection of six separate monologues, each narrated by a character based on people in Woolf’s circle (including the author, herself) and a seventh who is periodically referred to by the other narrators. 

Given the painful, lonely act of Woolf’s suicide (her body remained undiscovered for three weeks) and the small collection of “memoirs” that comprised the novel, the poignant privacy of this finale suffers from overcrowding with a surprising number of bodies cluttering the stage. It is at its best when the choreography is focused upon two gorgeous duets for Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli.

Artists of the Royal Ballet in <i>Woolf Works</i> © Tristam Kenton | ROH 2015
Artists of the Royal Ballet in Woolf Works
© Tristam Kenton | ROH 2015

Ferri reprised the role created on her by McGregor, in the opening and closing ballets, with a charismatic and commanding stage presence; backed up by strong support from Gary Avis in a welcome dancing role, and in the contributions of Francesca Hayward, Akane Takada, Natalia Osipova and Sarah Lamb. But the strength of these performances was but one ingredient in a fascinating collaborative, creative effort that combine to make this the most important of Wayne McGregor’s works during his decade, to date, as The Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer.   

Woolf Works will be screened in cinemas internationally on the 8th February.