The Waste Land, Wilton's Music Hall, London


Lines of beauty worth revisiting

Like the Bouffes du Nord, Peter Brook's jewel of a theatre in Paris, Wilton's Music Hall is a magical mix of the profane and the sacred. Built in 1858 by John Wilton, it began life as a variety house in which singers from Covent Garden would moonlight and let their hair down and high-wire acts, whose unique selling point was the absence of knickers, would gratify the heaven-directed gaze. Yet with its amazingly high proscenium arch that creates the elusive impression of an altar to the far end, and with its wrap-around choir-like balcony, there is more than a hint of a place of worship here too.

Twelve years ago precisely, the venue – now a thriving East End hub for the performing arts – was aroused from years of neglected slumber by The Waste Land, a solo performance of T S Eliot's Modernist masterpiece by Fiona Shaw in Deborah Warner's haunting (and much-travelled) production. So it would be hard to think of a better way of marking the 150th anniversary of the place and of alerting people to its restoration appeal than a redeveloped revival of this Shaw/Warner collaboration.

Jean Kalman's lighting, even better this time round, still casts outsize shadows of Shaw on the lofty, distressed back wall. Bare dangling light bulbs and shadeless, old-fashioned desk lamps suddenly pulse to life like eerie visual prompts for each phase and shift within each of the poem's five sections. It all beautifully conjures up the sort of state of mind in which you begin to feel phantasmal to yourself. But there are subtle changes too. A lot has happened in the intervening time – not least the horror of 9/11 and this needs must have a bearing on how you present a poem that could, with apologies to Pirandello and only half-fancifully, be subtitled "Six or more Quest Myths in Search of Spiritual Authority".

Previously, Shaw wore a sleeveless black gown; this time, she wears what the punters are wearing: jeans, jacket, scarf. As it evokes the groping for form during a personal and collective nervous breakdown, the poem feels like the projection of one consciousness, even as it chatters, jabbers, sings, quotes and neurotically converses in many voices. If I had to identify a difference in how Shaw tackles the technical and moral difficulties, I'd say the following. Hitherto, one was struck by the impersonal force with which these other accents possessed her, as though she were a highly strung medium. Here, she seems to me the put the emphasis on our common human vulnerability to attack by these voices and these discrepant identities that refuse to be appeased or to form a coherent order. Hence, the ordinary clothes and, at times, the confidential attitude to the audience. I was reminded of a line from another Eliot poem Gerontion: "I would meet you upon this honestly".

You could argue that the culmination of The Waste Land and the part in which its poetic technique and spiritual search are at their peak is not the actual ending but the water-dropping sequence in the final section which – with its acute musical enactment of a process of paring-down to the dry bone – seeks to locate the rock-bottom basis from which renewal might take place ("If there were the sound of water only..."). Cupping her hands to catch non-existent drops and intoning the word "drop" with a wry, bleak acknowledgment that the syllable will have to substitute for the substance, Shaw is at her best in this phase of the piece. Likewise, there's a stoic exhaustion rather than an intimation of hope in her delivery of the last line "Shantih shantih shantih". It's not the tentative prospect of peace but the fact that it passeth all understanding that is brought home to you here. Watching this compelling, honestly recontextualised version of The Waste Land in 2010 may make put you in mind of another famous Eliot line: "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?"

To 10 January (020 7702 2789)

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