Picking up from where last year’s production of Sarah Kane’s Crave left off, The Waste Land (directed by Joanna Bowman) is something of a curiosity. Rather than being a standard play, the production occupied the space between theatre and poetry – and it is on these grounds one must review it. The task at hand for a rehearsed reading is to take the primary text and use the act of speaking it out loud to add on further layers – something we see relatively little of on the St Andrews stage.
In this sense, The Waste Land was a success. With haunting aesthetics, invigorating directing, and a talented cast, the production at times massaged meaningful characterisation out of a regularly frustrating piece of work. At its core – The Waste Land doesn’t want you to understand it, but to stand there as its language flows over you. Enhancing the sensation of reading the poem, the use of multiple actors allowed for a clearer delineation of the voices that inhabit T. S. Eliot’s work, and as such made the text more approachable. While all the performances were solid, special note must be given to Suzanna Johnston who gave a wonderfully nuanced turn, shifting as easily between characters as a chameleon between colours. Equal parts comic and tragic, Johnston was able to give the greatest amount of variation in her performance without ever wandering into caricature, which is certainly no mean feat.
For me, the greatest issue with this event was the primary text itself. Although the production team managed to create an invocative interpretation of the poem – it can be argued that the act of reading The Waste Land out loud makes what is already a deeply confusing text even more so. Generally speaking, the process of reading The Waste Land is by no means linear. Reading the text allows you to go backwards and forwards at your own pace, helping one make links between recurring imagery and appreciate the language more. Yet when spoken at a pace outside of your control, it is more difficult to hold on to any of this. Unlike with poets such as Shakespeare or Yeats, with The Waste Land, Eliot seems to have created a text that was intended to be received in a written medium rather than an oral one. As such, when read out loud, the poem is almost weightless – where at its best, something within the text has the power to dig its claws into you.
So – a curiosity: invigorating and infuriating, beautiful yet weightless. Bowman’s The Waste Land is most certainly a visually exciting beginning to the 2015-2016 season – and as such, this monologue of many voices was a must see.