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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Waste Land
Wilton's Music Hall    Winter 2009-2010

A dozen years ago Fiona Shaw opened the long-derelict Wilton's Music Hall with her solo recital of T. S. Eliot's 1922 poem, and she has returned for a brief anniversary run that will fascinate lovers of Eliot, or Shaw, or just the wonders of language.

Regarded by many as the major and most seminal English poem of the Twentieth Century, The Waste Land is a sometimes bewildering cacophony of different voices, expressing the experience and confusion of the post-Great-War generation while also reaching back through virtually all of Western culture for means of expression and understanding.

In practice, this means that the musings of an upper-class voice will jump without warning into the professional patter of a tarot reader with a head cold, a heroic description of a lady's boudoir or the shrill gossip of a pub at closing time, with the vocabulary and style changing just as abruptly, pausing only for veiled echoes or direct quotations of writers from Homer through Shakespeare to Bram Stoker.

And one of the several joys of listening to a skilled and sensitive actress speak these words is that Shaw and her director Deborah Warner have separated out all these strands for us, the actress providing the different voices and personalities of the various speakers.

The famous opening lines about April's cruelty, for example, might come from the mouth of a country gentlewoman at her window, her bemused observation moving toward true depression, while the tarot reader's stuffed sinuses are audible and comic.

The lush catalogue of the boudoir, echoing Shakespeare's description of Cleopatra, is given just the hint of ironic distance, aware that the social butterfly who lives there is no queen of the Nile, and the weary voice of the eternal observer Tiresias stands in ironic contrast to the bland tawdriness of the loveless coupling he observes.

All this is in the poem, but available to only the most astute and dedicated reader, who Fiona Shaw certainly is, as she brings the poem's riches to us who might not be as equipped to go to it.

But this isn't just an illustrated English Lit course. Standing on a bare stage, the still-somewhat-decrepit Wilton's feeling very appropriate to the poem's shattered vision, the actress moves about to be lit by a succession of pinspots, some aimed to cast giant and atmospheric shadows behind her. It is therefore very much more of a visual and theatrical production than you might imagine a poetry reading to be.

To be honest, it is not likely that you will be able to hold focus and concentration throughout the performance, as the actress remarkably does, and it will be isolated lines or phrases - probably different ones for each listener - that will suddenly catch your ear and resonate in your imagination. But that, too, is an exciting theatrical experience.

The performance takes just under 40 minutes, and is being given twice nightly for a very short run.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Waste Land - Wilton's Music Hall 2009


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