Dockers and watermen dried their bones and wetted their whistles at The Prince of Denmark, as Wilton's Music Hall, in London's East End, was known in one of its earlier incarnations.
Clinging on to its ninth life now, a little threadbare but, thanks to heroism past and present, magnificent, Wilton's has received a glorious windfall: a run of performances of TS Eliot's The Waste Land, given by Fiona Shaw and directed by Deborah Warner.
Donating this revival to help shore up the theatre's fighting fund, the pair also illustrate why this faded star is worthy of such largesse. It is a marvellous theatre, where the drama starts long before the lights go down, and it is all the more precious for its nigh on miraculous location – the sole survivor of bombing raids and slum clearance all around.
A river runs through The Waste Land. Any river, every river. Certainly the nearby Thames, lifeblood of London and its dockers and watermen. Clearly the Nile, with Elizabeth I as Cleopatra. The Danube waltzes by flamboyantly; the Ganges does not stop until it reaches the afterlife. Currents and eddies foam in and out of each vignette that Shaw, with her characteristic bravura, brings to effervescent life, from the lonely widow or abandoned lover tormented by the colourful abundance of spring ("April is the cruellest month ...") to the final, conciliatory prayer for the dead.
On the way, we meet Marie and her toothless friend Lil, tussling over the best homecoming for Albert as the barman calls time, we kick around on the riverbank, witness a lacklustre seduction. Jean Kalman's superb lighting turns shadows into fellow travellers – now a towering queen, now a calming god. Other characters are conjured up with words alone, figures as vivid, varied and significant as those in the Tarot pack of Madame Sosostris. "I do not see the hanged man," declares Shaw, nonchalantly, with her remarkable flair for investing every word with layers of meaning while darting weightlessly through viscous lines such as "Murmuring of maternal lamentation".
This Waste Land takes us white-water rafting through continents and centuries, every bend, weir and reach at once familiar and yet in a state of flux. It is a remarkable gift, and that rare thing – a torrent of good language.
A great deal of jam on too little bread, is the glossy but unwholesome offer in Money, Shunt's free adaptation of Zola's biting exposé of greed, L'Argent. The hissing, grinding mass of industrial metal that confronts the audience in the warehouse housing this production proves to be the three-storey set itself, through which we are led, scene by scene, in pursuit of an investment bubble. It is a story of haves and have-nots – those who carry detachable handles that literally open doors and those who, like us, merely follow, helpless and dependent.
With sometimes breathtaking ingenuity and humour, Shunt dissects the unsavoury world of risk, each inventive scene like a new throw of the dice – schmoozing in the sybaritic sauna of Mr Big, a euphoric shareholders' meeting with, appropriately, bubbly for all, a deranged parliamentary debate ending with a carefree sing-song.
L'Argent was written at a time of banking scandals and big projects, notably the Suez Canal. In Money, the marvellous machine that will ladle jam on the backers' bread is a heap of junk, whose investors are persuaded by avarice that it has an invaluable place among the camels, pyramids and "the bits with snakes". Playwrights have rushed like Northern Rock savers to raid the financial crisis, a rich seam for students of human frailty, but it is Money that actually gets inside a bubble, and many feet off the ground in this amazing set, we feel something of its instability.
Brilliantly devised by the Shunt Collective, with music that sounds the alarm from the outset and a spectacular series of visual stunts, this foray into financial meltdown is full of surprises and with one inevitable truth: you can't have something for nothing.
The character called simply Husband in A Yorkshire Tragedy hasn't got that message. Indignant that sloth and a strategic marriage have not yielded enough wealth to fund his profligate lifestyle, in a single step he goes from moaning to murder, slaughtering his disappointing family. Familicide, observes Tough Theatre's earnest introduction to a play first recorded in 1605, is carried out in 96 per cent of cases by men. And present-day media reports of such crimes used in the production demonstrate that, 400 years on, there is nothing new under the sun.
A Yorkshire Tragedy is attributed to Shakespeare by some, to Middleton by others (the body count strengthens this case), and is a piece of theatrical archaelogy, a bag of bits and bobs that could only pre-date any of Shakespeare's authenticated work. Anyway, he was probably sunning himself in Italy at the time of writing.
A little prospecting is passingly amusing, panning for specks of gold in the dust, and there are a few resonant lines, but at best A Yorkshire Tragedy is only a string of beads. The 10 short scenes start and stop awkwardly, like the syllables of an elaborate charade, and a muddle of actors permanently on stage has to pick its way between boxes, bodies and fingerposts. And while Charlotte Powell touched the audience as the long-suffering Wife, Lachlan Nieboer rarely rises above a sulk in his portrayal of Husband. I've seen men more impassioned than this discussing a parking fine.
Yet, as L'Argent did, A Yorkshire Tragedy could have shown us what constituted a personal financial crisis in its day. We needed to see the Elizabethans' conspicuous consumption, and to convey that on a shoestring could have been an interesting challenge for director Andy Brunskill. "Surely 'tis love of money makes men weak" is the play's enduring truth. What A Yorkshire Tragedy lacks is the sense of greed so overwhelming, so inexorable – and there is no shortage of examples – that it will drive a man to murder.
'The Waste Land' (020-7702 2789), last performances today. 'Money' (020-7378 7776) to 27 Mar. 'A Yorkshire Tragedy' (020-7793 9193) to 24 JanReuse content