T S Eliot’s poem of visionary lamentation was first performed by Fiona Shaw at Wilton’s twelve years ago; she returns for a brief visit as part of a fund-raising campaign for this wonderful, atmospheric venue and the blessing she bestowed in 1997 is no less powerful today.
The poem is opaque and difficult, but Shaw is so blazingly persuasive that you readily submit to her litany of ghosts and faded memories that echo in the music hall vaults as “by the waters of Leman I sat down and wept” (the river, and Leman Street, is nearby). First time out, Shaw was swathed in black; now she is swathed in scarves, and green/brown winter clothes.
She is a time traveller, a Greek chorus, an athletic figure on an ancient vase, an apocalyptic horsewoman (as a classical prelude to Lady Gay Spanker at the National next year?), an impassioned witness, mercurial messenger and skittish hyacinth girl, a clairvoyant with a bad cold, Dido with visions of Carthage on fire, the entire personnel of a chattering London pub.
She has seen, too, “the falling towers” and the hooded hordes swarming over the endless plains. Haven’t we all? In just forty minutes, she despatches the full range and beauty of the poem, and makes it live; on the page, it can only do so with multiple foot-notes.
Deborah Warner’s production pitches this great performance in an echo chamber of sounds and visions, isolating Shaw on a high stage in the beautiful, chill lighting of Jean Kalman, which uses a constellation of bare light bulbs and huge shadows (“Who is the third who walks always beside you?”) and silhouette; never has Wilton’s so truly asserted itself as a companion place to Peter Brook’s Bouffes du Nord in Paris.
As before, Shaw binds the elliptical passages and vivid multi-vocalism of Eliot’s verse into an organic statement of a society on the edge of collapse. Is this the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper, after all? The effect of the performance is to make you want to sit straight down and watch it again. Hard images, elusive meaning, magical rhythm… it’s an unfathomable mystery, and an unforgettable one, too.