Writers and Directors: James Lever and Oliver Rowse
To celebrate the centenary of the publication of ‘The Waste Land’, Dead Poets Live turn their attention to T.S. Eliot, perhaps the greatest of all Modernists. Dead Poets Live’s clever and detailed dramatization of the poem’s creation and development demonstrates that ‘The Waste Land’ was not Eliot’s work alone, but a collaboration between him, his first wife Vivien, and Ezra Pound. For any poetry enthusiast, this show is as exciting as a courtroom drama.
Pound’s influence can be seen right at the start of the poem in Eliot’s dedication to his friend, written in Italian, IL MIGLIOR FABBRO: The better craftsman. It’s a humble beginning to a ground-breaking poem. Of course, Pound’s impact over ‘The Waste Land’ is well known but rarely do we see it acted out on stage. The two men argue over lines which Pound believes are cheap imitations of Alexander Pope and Lord Tennyson. And it’s true, if it weren’t for Pound, ‘The Waste Land’ would be a very different poem; much longer, and with whole swathes of it written in the iambic pentameter that Pound was so determined to break. In Dead Poet Live’s recreations of these conversations, Pound’s suggestions about excising flabby phrases and moralising words seem perfectly reasonable.
Later, Eliot’s sickly wife joins them at the table armed with her own editor’s knife. Initially, Vivien is pictured as a selfish ‘Victorian invalid’, listing off an inventory of ailments as long as her arm, but soon it becomes apparent that she is a keen critic of her husband’s verse. She even allows him to write in her voice. The middle of the poem’s second section has a desperate unidentified speaker saying: “My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me./Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.” These must be Vivien’s own pleas.
The three of them sit around a table, taking the poem apart line by line, and it thrills in the same way as a film where the lawyers work deep into the night preparing their defence for the courtroom the next morning. As Eliot, Luke Thallon certainly looks the part with his neatly cut hair, and his suit. His Eliot is a likeable combination of haughtiness and innocence, trying to stand by his wife even though her illnesses mean that he has little time to write poetry. Toby Regbo is a wonderfully demonstrative Pound, who sacrifices his own work to nurture other writers while Pearl Chanda gives depth and intelligence to Vivien, usually seen as a tragic figure in Eliot’s life.
The two-act play is narrated by Lindsay Duncan, who plays Eliot’s second and much younger wife, Valerie. Speaking to us after Eliot’s death, Valerie presents the other characters, sometimes pointing to pages of the manuscript, projected on the stage, which show the many edits and scribbles as the Eliots and Pound shaped the poem into the form we know today.
After the interval, the four of them recite ‘The Waste Land’, and hearing the poem in four different voices, a nod to the poem’s original title taken from Dickens’s My Mutual Friend, is like dialling through a radio late at night, hearing snatches of music, of conversations at closing time in East End pubs, and of hearing about old myths reappearing along the banks of the Thames. All these voices chronicle the malaise of postwar London, and Eliot’s own fears. Played out in the crumbling and faded Coronet Theatre, this recital is ingeniously site-specific.
It may be impossible to fully understand the many allusions and stories within ‘The Waste Land’, but this production by Dead Poets Live ensures that we understand it just that little bit more.
Runs until 22 October 2022