Hong Kong university professor revisits T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land with strings attached

Julian Lamb’s Kwai Tsing Theatre show includes music by Schoenberg, Shostakovich and Wagner

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 September, 2015, 11:25am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 September, 2015, 11:27am

Julian Lamb first “performed” his favourite poem with musical accompaniment as a young undergraduate 13 years ago. Now a Chinese University professor, Lamb will repeat the performance, albeit with a few tweaks, at the Kwai Tsing Theatre later this month.

T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is packed with tantalising literary references and ageless philosophical questions. But it is not obvious how it can be performed on stage outside of earnest poetry readings. “I don’t read it; I perform it. I have memorised the whole poem by heart,” says Lamb.

In a way, the poem that starts with the line, “April is the cruelest month”, is made for dramatisation. It is a cacophony of male and female voices that, on paper, can be baffling.

“I do my best to put on different voices, including a woman’s voice. People who have seen the performance have commented that our emphasis on characters helps to make the poem clear,” says Lamb.

Lamb hadn’t performed The Waste Land since graduating from university. After being introduced to David Pereira, an Australian cellist, who was interested in combining the spoken word with music. Late last year, the duo decided to revive Lamb’s student production and performed it in Canberra to glowing reviews.

They also took it to Bright in rural Victoria, home of Lamb’s high school teacher, a man he is indebted to for his love of literature and drama.

Lamb, who spent his childhood in Hong Kong, returned to Australia nine years ago to teach. He says the new performance is a lot subtler than his youthful interpretation.

“There are themes that a twenty-something just wouldn’t get, such as recognising its ongoing concerns about redemption,” says Lamb. “All the characters seek some kind of redemption, and one of Eliot’s guiding questions is how a broken world like ours can ever be redeemed.”

As a student, Lamb wanted to impress the audience with a dramatic delivery accompanied by a string quartet and a soprano. Today, it will be a quieter performance, he will be accompanied by Pereira playing Schoenberg, Shostakovich and some Wagner  – one of Eliot’s favourite composers. Pereira will also improvise some sections.

“It was one of those poems that made me decide to study literature for the rest of my life,” says Lamb. “Through my performance, I want to make the poem clear. I want the audience to like it more than I do."

The Waste Land, Black Box Theatre, Kwai Tsing Theatre, 12 Hing Ning Rd, Kwai Chung, September 22-26, 8pm; September 26-27, 4pm, HK$170-HK$230, Urbtix. Inquiries: 3761 6661