April is the cruelest month... [by James Wenley]
Last week I was fortunate enough to experience a profound theatrical event. It’s been a few days now – most productions wash off soon after viewing – but in this one I keep returning to its moment in my head.
I find experiences like these are all too rare, but it’s what keeps me coming back to theatre; the promise of being taken out of my body, to be transported to an undiscovered territory, to feel something new. And when that promise is realised, it’s a special thing indeed.
T.S Eliot’s 1922, 432-line poem The Waste Land is considered one of the most important works of literature of the 20th Century. I don’t claim to understand it. It’s a work that rewards the academic, full of allusions and depths to unravel. It flicks from image to image, voice to voice.
But as a poem, it contains its own sort of dark power. Certain words and phrases linger on the tongue. There’s an obsession with mortality and death. It’s a poem that means many different things to many different people, but within its words, you might just find the totality of existence.
The poem is given a startling voice and vitality in a theatrical interpretation by director Michael Hurst, the first production in Auckland Theatre Company’s Participate program. What immediately distinguishes the production is Hurst is working with a company of 34 actors, an immense number that professional stages costs hardly allow. What then makes the production exceptional is that this company of 34 are all aged 65 years old and over. Some were alive before The Waste Land had even been written. It’s an age group that is rarely given a voice and platform in the professional arts, and certainly never in these sorts of numbers.
As the program explains, to join this cast there was “No experience necessary and no audition – the only requirement is to be over 65 years of age and willing to join us on a challenging journey of self-discovery”. Some had acting experience; others had never trod the boards before.
The Waste Land took place at Auckland Theatre Company headquarters at Mt Eden War Memorial Hall, in their main rehearsal room. Seating is limited, and the production sold out weeks in advance. I’m squeezed in to provide a review.
Lynne Cardy, ATC’s Creative Development Manager, tells us the rules before entry. We may find a seat of our liking, but we can’t sit on any that say reserved. We can’t move any of the chairs round, lest we disrupt the poetry. Her small dog accompanies her as she ushers us through to help us find seats; it’s a homely and welcoming affair.
We enter to a world already in motion. I immediately notice a couple tenderly dancing. A piano is played by a gentleman in a kilt. There’s wine, and a chess game. The cast are dressed immaculately, stunning frocks and hats for the ladies, many clutching elegant handbags. Suits for the men. It’s like walking into another time, a golden era of the past. A social gathering to relive past glories.
I find a seat and am able to get a fuller sense of the space. The audience are seated in clusters all around the perimeter of the room. Tables are dotted around the room, each with an old-style lamp on top. This is our main light source, dimmed and brightened to suit the mood. Green plants and shrubbery fill in the spaces. In one corner is a shimmer star cloth (made by company member Pat Quirke).
The cast are divided into four main groupings. On opposing sides of the space face two groups. To my right is ‘The Establishment’, a stoic and still portrait of men and women in black. One woman wears a preacher’s gown. A man sits in a wheelchair, black glasses on his face. Together, they make a connection to the blind, gender-changing Tiresias figure of Greek myth in the poem. To my left, and beneath the star cloth, ‘The Sibyls’ sit in a row and knit. The central figure is a very elderly lady sitting on a throne. She appears other-worldly, transcendent, covered by a flowing and shining black fur coat and wearing a crown of green leaves on her head. Whenever she stands, announcing the different sections of Eliot’s poem (The Burial of the Dead, A Game of Chess, The Fire Sermon, Death by Water, What the Thunder said) she is given focus and respect from the company.
I subsequently learn this is Joyce Irving, the eldest member of the company at 90. Her brilliant coat was a gift given to her by her Great Aunt in 1949, set and costume designer Jessica Verytt working with many of the cast’s personal belongings.
The community of ‘The Thinkers’ hover around the piano, chess set, and wine in the far corner of the room. The clairvoyant Madame Sosistrous (Pat Quirke), “known to be the wisest woman in Europe” - a distinct character within the poem - will emerge from the Sibyls to play her role.
The remainder of the sizeable cast play the Chorus, who mingle around, behind, in front and beside us, claiming and reclaiming areas of the space through the performance. It is for them that the ‘reserved’ signs are for.
Two ladies join my table, and gossip about a German lady close by. I overhear one saying “she was here last night”, the other saying she is a “nuisance”. As the first lines from Eliot’s poem are spoken, one tells the other to “sush”. Later, they will return and have a conversation about stockings.
In this setting, the distinction between performer and audience is blurred, and at times its hard to tell who came to act and who came to watch. We are immersed into this world, existing all around us.
The performance is a fluid one, changing and moving, taking as its cue perhaps the ‘broken images’ suggested in the text, but at the same time given a unity by the connection between the performers. Many different voices communicate the poem, addressing both each other and the audience. Words are considered, chewed. It’s potent when the chorus speaks as one, the words ringing clear. They repeat phrases and words, other times they just make sound from within - hums or wails. Occasionally the company fleetingly breaks into a full voiced song, but it dies after as quickly as it arrived.
Some lines make an impression, or given extra pondering. It’s not without significance that many are to do with one’s mortality “Are you alive or not?”, “Phlebas the Phoenician a fortnight Dead”, “As he rose and fell / He passes the stages of his age and youth / Entering the whirlpool”, “We who were living are now dying”, “Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song”.
The actors carry themselves with remarkable attention and focus. Many have rich, sonorous tones, with diction to be envied. Some performers make a special mark. A woman in a yellow dress who performed with curiosity and youthful vigor. The American preacher. Madame Soistrous and the hapless man having his fortune taken. A particularly elegant gentleman with a wonderful quality of expression.
Amongst the closing imagery, the earthly regal figure and the restricted man in the wheelchair are bought together to face and oppose each other. The other performers slowly exit - there is a snatch of the childhood song ‘London bridge is fallen down’, and the last lines of the poem are spoken. As they leave, there is a palpable sense of loss in the room. Without them, the space is empty. I realise how much their presence energised the space, it is barren without them. A waste land.
What becomes remarkable in this performance is how Eliot’s poetry becomes secondary to the poetry of the moment. Of bodies – audience and performers – in space. The shared experience. The coming together. The life and breath in the room.
Like the poem itself, I suspect each audience member took home a unique experience and different personal meaning, depending not only on where you were seated within the space, but their own experience and stage of life.
Despite the heavy preponderance of death, and without meaning to sound trite, I found it an ultimately life-affirming production – there is death, but these is also life. And speaking from my situation of youth, made me fear age just a little bit less.
The Waste Land was an outstanding collaboration between Michael Hurst, Musical Director John Gibson, Set and Costume Designer Jessica Verryt, Lighting Designer Simon Coleman, the extraordinary company of senior citizens, and the other contributors (Special mentions to much younger bodies Natalie Braid and Amo Ieriko who stage-managed, operated the tech, and moved set pieces).
As the first performance event of ATC’s Participate program, The Waste Land has set an extremely high bench-mark. As a program, it has great promise – it’s the opportunity for other voices to be heard, and I’d venture to say that work like this is one of the most vital things Auckland’s premiere theatre company can do. It speaks to the very heart of what theatre is – communities of people.
The Waste Land was a very special production that will no doubt linger in my memory for many years to come.
Shanti Shanti Shanti
The Waste Land was presented by Auckland Theatre Company Participate and played at ATC Studios 8 -11 December.