Theatre review

Review: Julian Lamb in T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land

Chinese University professor's performance was unusual but ultimately accomplished, and David Pereira's cello accompaniment lent clarity to what is a complex work

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 September, 2015, 4:51pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 September, 2015, 5:02pm

Julian Lamb’s confident and dexterous dramatisation of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, accompanied by cellist David Pereira, lent clarity to one of the most challenging aspects of the seminal modernist poem - the constantly shifting narrative voices - even if his was an unusual interpretation that might have jarred with any anticipation of a quieter, more sombre reading.

The fortissimo delivery of the pensive opening line, “April is the cruellest month”, the adoption of an angry, almost brash, tone when speaking as the blind Tiresias, and perhaps least explicably, the falsetto Lamb used to denote a female character (accompanied by limp wrists and other stereotypical gestures that ran the risk of reducing Eliot’s complex female cast to caricatures), were all rather unexpected.

But so, too, was how well the music complemented, rather than distracted from, the poem. The performance at Kwai Tsing’s Black Box Theatre began with an orchestral recording of the prelude from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde – a ridiculously romantic piece of music which Eliot himself had explicitly referenced in the footnotes to the Waste Land – before Pereira’s cello seamlessly took over with a solo rendition, gently drawing the audience into the bare centre stage. He also played segments from early 20th century classical music and his own improvisations, which went well with the poem’s varying rhythms, including “ripples” that were clever devices denoting each time Lamb morphed into a new character.

Despite some questionable choices, Lamb, a professor of English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, gave a highly accomplished performance of a poem he’d learned by heart in his undergraduate days.

In “What the Thunder Said”, the final section of the poem, he alternated his reading of those mesmerising lines “And no rock/ If there were rock/ And also water …” with a recording of Eliot’s own recital, a moving tribute to the enduring power of this literary masterpiece.

This review is based on the September 26, 2015 matinee performance of The Waste Land at Kwai Tsing Theatre (Black Box Theatre)