The Waste Land as a Christmas show? Whatever next - The Upanishads On Ice? Widow Twankey's Guide to the Bhagavad-Gita, kicked off by a performance of Stravinsky's little-known Orchestral Variations on "Supercallifragelisticexpiallidocious"? Forget April; December is the cruellest month, breeding TV star-stuffed pantos out of the dead land, stirring dull roots with a stream of sequins. As an antidote to all this, Deborah Warner's production of TS Eliot's great poem, in a solo performance by Fiona Shaw, proves that deep theatrical pleasure can, even at this stage of the year, still be separated from forced seasonal jollity.
Cities, from Dublin to Montreal, New York to Paris, have already witnessed Shaw's virtuosic voyage through the multiple identities, the fractured spectral patterns of death and wished-for rebirth, and the urban/desert landscapes of a poem that, for all Eliot's later deprecation of it as too personal, dramatises a collective cultural nervous breakdown, the heap of broken images left by the nightmare explosion of the Great War. But, in arriving at last in London, the production is arriving at last in more senses than one.
A director addicted to finding venues spookily suspended between two or several lives (as when she sent audiences on lone walkabouts through the derelict splendour of the defunct Gothic Hotel at St Pancras), Warner has found a dream location for this Waste Land. The Thames, caught at various periods, flows through Eliot's poem, which is anchored in a world that conflates a Dante-esque limbo, Baudelaire's desert of Ennui, and the commuter-swarming City of London that Eliot, the banker, knew all too well. The Thames flows close by Wilton's Music Hall, in Grace's Alley, just behind St Katherine's Dock, an area that teems with topographical Waste Land association. "By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept..." takes on a more concrete life if you've recently walked down Leman St.
This is no philistine "Waste Land Experience" experience. We aren't talking open-top bus tours or arrival by tugboat. The poem has a love-hate relationship with London too emotionally complex to be tidied into a tourist-friendly inter-activity. When, at the start, a scarfed Fiona Shaw crouches in the darkness and switches on a single lightbulb, the audience is already intensely focused on the the gaunt, ghostly glory of the music hall, with its cast- iron barley-sugar pillars supporting a great horseshoe sweep of papier mache balconies. Its proportions (40 feet wide and tall, 60ft long) and its barrel-vaulting evoke a sense of the temple, the synagogue and the chapel as much as a place where Victorian tightrope walkers once performed knickerless over an uncomplaining audience and where Mr Wilton would whisk in singers from Covent Garden, matching the fees they commanded there, to warble late-night arias to the 1,500 folk he used to cram in.
The atmosphere is greatly enhanced now by Jean Kalman's superb lighting, which sometimes pins Ms Shaw in a hard, clear spot, and sometimes sends a great gesticulating shadow-double of her rearing up as tall as the high, stripped-back proscenium arch ("Who is this third who walks always beside you?"). Built in 1858, the music hall fell foul of new fire regulations, became a Methodist Mission in 1885, was saved from demolition by Betjeman in 1964, and could, Lottery grant permitting, enjoy a future as a performance space-cum-cultural history centre.
The peculiar mix of the profane and the sacred in its physical make-up and in its genius loci means that the building works very well for The Waste Land with its cameo-like routines (the head-blocked clairvoyant Mme Sosostris; the dentally challenged Lil in the Cockney pub section; the fact that "He Do the Police in Different Voices" was once its projected Dickensian title) and its desperate need to find the grounds on which some tentative spiritual regeneration might be possible.
A solo performance has to be a virtuoso acting exercise without ever seeming so, and only very occasionally are you sidetracked here into thinking this is a pilot for a Fiona Shaw... Who Else? series. Shaw continually shocks you by the truth and originality of her line readings, the startling mediumistic manner she switches into new voices, the finesse with which she refuses to make this poem's journey more redemptive than it is. For example, when she delivers the water-dropping song of the hermit thrush, "Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop", she suddenly turns one of those "drops" into a desperate order, not a description of what is happening. She lets you hear that this line is the imitative sound of water only, not actual revivifying rain, and when she utters the last words of the poem, her palm is still raised expectantly.
One irony of this production's trip round the world is that to find the right abandoned, ghostly sites for a poem about the need for spiritual regeneration, Warner has had to race one step ahead of the material refurbishment that is turning everywhere into lofts, nightclubs, and virtual-reality parlours. On New York's 42nd St, the surprising new home of Family Values, the production parked itself obstinately between theatres converted into mega Disneystores and Steven Spielberg experiences. Not, you can confidently speculate, Eliot's idea of progress.
Toronto proved to be the biggest headache on the newness front. The ideal spot would have been a tin shack (like Stratford's Other Place before it was tarted up) on a deserted piece of high ground overlooking the skyscrapers of the city. Then it emerged that the ground was poisoned (a perfect state, metaphorically speaking, less so from the insurance perspective) and they had to decamp to a big disused former brewery. Here, the show was performed traverse-fashion in a long room with little tram-lines running down the centre where the beer barrels used to be rolled and where a mouse made a twice-nightly bid for theatrical stardom. Given the poem a rat, or rats, would have been handier ("I think we are in rats alley/ Where the dead men lost their bones").
Wilton's Music Hall looks as if it might be quite rich in such scuttling props, although they kept a respectful silence during Sunday evening's London premiere, when both the day and the night gave the proceedings the air of a church gathering gone ineffably and disturbingly wrong: "There is the empty chapel, only the wind's home/ It has no windows, and the door swings..."
When Philip Larkin, in his poem Church Going, wrote that even an agnostic "will be forever surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious" in a church, he wasn't thinking of converted music halls and ex-Methodist missions, but I suspect he would concede that an atmosphere like Wilton's exerts a very similar spell.
Famous for choosing locations that aren't overweeningly accessible, Warner has, with this Waste Land, sparked a parody-article doing the rounds in theatrical circles, in which Warner finally sends Shaw off on an Apollo space mission. It may never happen, but don't sell your radio telescopes just yet.
Further performances (running time: 37 mins): 7.30pm tonight, tomorrow, then twice nightly 7.30/8.45pm Mon-Sat, 5/7pm Sun, at Wilton's Music Hall, Grace's Alley, Ensign Street, off Cable Street, Tower Hill, London E1 (0171-928 2252). To Sun 11 JanReuse content