This week, the first Mermaid production of the academic year opens: The Waste Land, a rehearsed reading of T.S. Eliot’s famous poem. In anticipation of this, I sat down for an interview with the director of the production. Joanna Bowman is the current Mermaids president and an accomplished director, having helmed works like Crave, That Face, and Pornography. This is what she had to say.
Owl Eyes: Why The Waste land?
Joanna Bowman: Cool question. I’ve been thinking about doing The Waste Land for a while. First of all, I think it’s just a really cool poem. I think it’s a really well written, exciting piece of writing. Playing around with it you realize just how many voices are in it. When Eliot was original writing it, it was called “He do the Police in Different Voices”, so there’s always this idea of voice being central to the piece. And when I read, it does, to me, demand to be listened to rather than read, just because there are so many voices. Obviously there’s a lot of textual moving-around which is lost on the stage, but I think it does demand to be listened to. After doing Crave last year, Crave is a lot like The Waste Land in a lot of ways, and I wanted to go back to that source material. I think there was a line, actually, in Al [Gillespie, Saint critic]’s review of Crave that went, “imagine if someone put The Waste Land on stage.” Imagine if! It was something I had thought about before, but that was the concrete, “I think this could work well on stage.”
OE: I see right now that there are all sorts of things laid out on the stage right now. What should we expect in terms of set, or other technical elements?
JB: We’ve got a fab team who’ve put this together, which is essentially the Barron covered in pages of books. We destroyed a bunch of books to put a production of a book on. The irony is not lost on us. We’re going to cover the entire Barron floor in book pages, and hang them from the ceiling. Danielle [Donnally, Mermaids Technical Officer]’s doing our tech, so really cool lights. I’m trying to put together a kind of sound scape, made of Wagner and Steve Reich kind of blended together to make this weird minimalist/epic opera fusion thing, which may or may not work. We’ll see what it sounds like. The lighting’s gonna be cool. And we’re gonna try to do something cool with books at the end to remind people that this is a literary text. We really want to root it in words. That’s how the production’s gonna work. Words are the set.
OE: So you go up in week three?
JB: We do.
OE: I have some experience in that, I know it can be –
JB: – Horrible.
OE: Stressful, yes. How’s that going? How are you managing your time?
JB: In comparison to Backbone [a Joanna Alpern play which premiered week 3 of the 2014-15 academic year], which was a two-hour epic, this is clocking in at around half an hour. So it’s not long. The complexities come in untangling the mess, the perfectly constructed weirdness that is Eliot’s poem. In a lot of our rehearsals, we’re sitting down, we’re deconstructing the text, understanding what lines mean, how we should say them. Because it’s short, it’s relatively easy, and the cast is all great. Which makes it easier. It means that rehearsals aren’t stressful. It may not be a perfect reading but will be a reading. An interpretation of it. Which is exciting as well. It’s the idea of working together to make an interpretation that works across the piece, rather than being like, “This is the definitive Waste Land.”
OE: So your work then has been in deciding how those lines split up. Identifying the different voices. You’ve been talking a bit about that, could you go on?
JB: Of course. A lot of the poem does split up quite naturally. There are different characters. There’s the mad clairvoyant, Madam Sosostris, there’s a fallen, PTSD, war hero character. There are definitely characters in the poem. And the rest of it is working out where the poetic breaks are. Something I’ve tried to do in certain sections is layer the voice to a climax. That’s where the difficulties are: working out where it makes sense to have breaks. And a lot of this week, this is week two of rehearsal, is saying “ooh, this doesn’t work there. Let’s shake it up.” And that’s where the cast has an impact, in realizing what does and doesn’t work, which is lovely.
OE: Excellent. The Wasteland is famous because it is a terribly, terribly obscure poem. It has dozens of references and multiple foreign languages in there. Have you been having trouble with, or thinking about, dealing with making it accessible to an audience?
JB: Yes, absolutely. I think you’ve nailed it on the head: it’s a difficult text. And I wouldn’t even begin to say that I understand it wholly. I think I understand it enough to present it, but there’s no way in which my idea of it is the idea of it, and probably not even what Eliot intended it to be. It’s difficult to reconcile the fact that we won’t understand it with the fact that you’re doing it. If audiences don’t expect to understand it, they’ll have a far better time. If they walk out thinking they’re stupid for not understanding it, then that’s a real shame. Because even the greatest Eliot scholars, like Robert Crawford, who is the Eliot scholar at this university, don’t say that they understand The Wasteland. It’s putting our spin on it to understand it enough. And people will project their own ideas onto it, which is lovely as well. It’s very obscurity means that people will find their own meanings in it, which is what we’re trying to do. In the case of foreign languages, it’s a case of phonetically working out how they should sound. Latin, Italian, French, Greek, German
JB Yeah. It’s weird, it’s crazy, it’s exciting. Yeah. Understanding it enough is our maxim.
OE: My final question is: why should I, and why should my readers, go and see The Waste Land next week?
JB: It’s a chance that I wouldn’t say is unique, but is perhaps rare: to see the poem performed in its entirety. A poem which had such an incredible impact on the landscape of British, and I guess, world literature. It’s importance can’t be underestimated. From a historicist perspective, it’s an important piece of work, which people should see. Hopefully, it’ll provide some kind of accessibility to the poem. What struck me the first time I read it, is that it does demand to be listened to, and I think the poem is at it’s best when it’s read.