The Waste Land

Mt Eden War Memorial Hall, 487 Dominion Road, Auckland

07/12/2011 - 10/12/2011

Production Details

Jokes about hip replacements, failing memories and rusty talents calm nerves at The Waste Land cast’s first gathering in ATC’s airy rehearsal room.  “Rusty’s fine,” reassures director Michael Hurst (Red, Cabaret). “Rusty’s good.”

Not what you’d ordinarily hear from a director but this is no ordinary production. There were no auditions, and some of the 34 Aucklanders here haven’t acted since school. To qualify, you needed only to be 65 plus and game for an eye-watering feat: dramatising T. S. Eliot’s 1922 poem, a dense, glittering, urgent creature that careers giddily across time, space and myth.  

T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece, arguably the most important poetic work of the twentieth century, is profound, lyrical, fragmented, dramatic, searching, gossipy, spiritual, moody, stricken, poignant, rhythmic, frail, visionary, deceptive, funny, ill, hopeful, desperate, a deep flowing river full of memory and desire. 

Michael says: “I want to present this most apt and moving piece in a theatrical exploration, using voices and characterizations, movement, music and physical expression. This will be an immersive experience for performers and audience alike; a journey into the possibilities offered by the text.”

The cast members introduce themselves. Joyce Irving, 90, was born before the work was written. Audrey Coubrey, in her 80s, was first on stage 45 years ago. She’s not as limber as she used to be, she says, but no matter. “The will never dies, does it?”  

When ATC asked Hurst if he’d run a workshop for its Participate programme, he offered instead to direct a production of older people; “the people we never really see on stage”.

Hurst knew the performers’ age would bring a unique dimension. “It’s like working with teenagers: something happens that can only happen because they are that age.” 

Two other accomplished professionals, designer Jessica Verryt and composer John Gibson, will lend their skills, and the finished product will be performed here, at ATC’s headquarters. 

Hurst warns there’ll be “no softly softly… I want the audience to be immersed completely in this.” 

This spirit of free-ranging, rule-breaking, ambitious collaboration infuses Participate, which, only its first year, has already brought new audiences to theatre and new theatre to audiences old and new, theatre that reflects and grows out of life in Auckland. 

ATC Studios  
Mt Eden War Memorial Hall, Lower Ground Floor, 487 Dominion Road. 
Wed 7 – Sun 10 Dec, 8pm
+ Thu 8 Dec, 2pm

Don Bassett
Susie Dowling
Peter Goodier
Kerr Inkson
Maggie Maxwell
Rex McIntosh
Sunny Morete
Kevin Murray

Margaret Adams
Angela Bampton
Eileen Barrington
Margaret Devlin
Elizabeth Pendergrast
Angela Reading
Julie Ryan
Marianne Simpkins
Kay Spencer
Karen Staniland
Noeline Webb

Ferooz Afshar
Vincent Broom
Joaquim Francino-Arenillas
Randall  McMullan
Susan Sanders

Margaret Blay
Heather  Campbell
Audrey Coubray
Joyce Irving
Patricia Noonan
Annette Perjanik
Pat Quirke
Heather Simpson
Rosalie Williams

Pat Quirke

DIRECTOR:              Michael Hurst
SET & COSTUME DESIGN:  Jessika Verryt
STAR CLOTH:  Pat Quirke
STAGE MANAGER:  Natalie Braid
ARCHIVISTS:  Leisha Ward-Knox, Anna Nuria Francino
PRODUCTION SUPPORT:  Paul Nicoll, Anders Falstie-Jensen
DESIGN INTERN:  Gina Ter Huurne 

Amber McWilliams, Lynne Cardy, Billie Staples, Anders Falstie-Jensen 

TICKETING - ATC Box Office team: 
Anna Nuria Francino, Sophie Nicoll, Gary Barker 

Colin Gibson composed some music for John Webster’s Dirge from his play The White Devil especially for the production – “O keep the dog far hence that’s friend to men”
In Part 1:  Wagner’ s Tristan and Isolde  
In Part 2: “That Shakespearian Rag” Lyrics by Gene Buck and Herman Ruby. Tune by David Stamper.
In Part 3:  Wagner’s Gotterdamerung and an Australian troop’s version of a song by Chattaway Red Wing with lyrics changed to describe Mrs Porter - an owner of a Cairo brothel.
In Part 4: Original music composed by John Gibson
A Game of Chess Minuet, composed and performed by Joaquim Francino-Arenillas  

April is the cruelest month...

Review by James Wenley 15th Dec 2011

Last week I was fortunate enough to experience a profound theatrical event. It’s been a few days now – most productions wash off soon after viewing – but in this one I keep returning to its moment in my head.

I find experiences like these are all too rare, but it’s what keeps me coming back to theatre; the promise of being taken out of my body, to be transported to an undiscovered territory, to feel something new. And when that promise is realised, it’s a special thing indeed. [more


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Intelligence, splendour and elegance

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 14th Dec 2011

April is the cruellest month, breeding  
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing 
Memory and desire, stirring 
Dull roots with spring rain

So it begins, and so it shall be …

Friedrich Schiller, the German playwright, poet, philosopher, historian, aesthete and critical cog in the development of Weimar Classicism, had quite a bit to say about the role of the theatre in society. He expounded his views in On the Use of the Chorus in Greek Tragedy (1803) – written as a prologue to his play The Bride of Messina – and The Stage as a Moral Institution (1784). Much of what he says relates to the presentation of ‘the truth’ in a satisfyingly didactic manner.

He rather pompously added that the theatre was “a great school of practical wisdom, a guide to civil life, and a key to the mind”; that a mimetic theatrical presentation should be an exact representation of society, a depiction that involved each audience member receiving the play’s message in the same way and thereby agreeing on what moral changes needed to be made in the society of the time.

Shakespeare said it simpler when he suggested that the purpose of playing is to hold a mirror up to nature. 

In choosing to present a theatrical staging of TS Eliot’s influential poem The Waste Land (1922) in the new Dominion Road rehearsal room with a cast of community volunteers, all of whom are over the age of 65, Auckland Theatre Company has done more than pay homage to Shakespeare and lip service to Schiller; it has come up with what it calls “a new programme of community engagement” which is, in fact, a stroke of contemporary genius.

By adding a couple of young ’uns in Michael Hurst and John Gibson to the mix and providing this wonderful cast with a delectable venue, success was almost guaranteed.  On paper, only Eliot and his often incomprehensible work stood in the way. 

Hurst must also be applauded for his choice of material. Eliot is difficult stuff for any actor let alone the inexperienced and The Waste Land is possibly even more so but it’s to Hurst’s credit that he hasn’t patronised his cast by down-playing his expectations and he has been duly rewarded. We, his audience, are the beneficiaries.

It’s not stretching it too much to say that Eliot had an obsession with aging. In 1920, when still only thirty two, he pondered (in The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock):
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.  
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

Like Eliot, our present government has an equally disturbing obsession with aging. How often do we hear that the baby-boomers have become a burden on society simply by having the temerity to live longer than their forebears? Older people have inadvertently become a contemporary dilemma, an election issue, a yoke on the economy and a crisis is looming with the ‘elderly’ at the eye of the hurricane. 

“Cometh the hour, cometh the man” as they say and, in this case, it’s Colin McColl and Auckland Theatre Company.  ATC has begun a process that places value on the elderly and which clearly sees them as a wonderful resource to be treasured and utilised in a manner that is both respectful and enriching.  If this production is anything to go by the repayment is hundredfold.

So ATC is holding the mirror up to nature in a Schilleresque way and this is a ‘first’ to be applauded – mutually rewarding community outreach at its very best. This was dignified, intelligent, worldly, articulate, with not a creaky joint in evidence anywhere.

It’s rude to ask someone’s age so suffice it to say that, to have been born when Eliot was penning his masterpiece, the actor would need to be at least 89 years old. By 1946 – the low-end cut off date for actors to qualify to participate in this work, The Waste Land was already considered one of the great poetic works of the 20th century and Eliot’s status as one of the greats was guaranteed. Without prior knowledge I suspect most of this cast would have encountered Eliot first while at university in the 1950s and 60s when Eliot’s flame burned brightest. 

The Waste Land is an epic work though markedly reduced from the original draft by pre-publication editing, largely by Eliot himself but also by friend, confidante and fellow intellectual Ezra Pound.

The five part dramatic monologue form is well suited to performance and Hurst’s clever and accurate interpretation makes even the densest and most convoluted passages – and there are plenty of them – clear.

There are sections evocative of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses, literally dozens of often obscure literary references and his use of multiple languages, while cocking a snook at Pound, doesn’t make things any easier for the generalist reader either. Eliot was, after all, nothing if not a Modernist, whatever that might mean! 

It’s probably worth noting that those of us who claim lineage from the love generation – and I’m sure at least some of this cast did – adored Eliot. Not Eliot alone of course, also Emily Dickenson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, J.D.Salinger, Gerard Manly Hopkins, the Beat poets, Jack Kerouac and Kingsley Amis to name but a few.  We were, we thought, an insightful, expressive and literate bunch. 

Hurst’s actors, sourced from an advertisement which read “No experience necessary and no audition – the only requirement is to be over 65 years of age and willing to join us on a challenging journey of discovery” appeared to come primarily from that generation and articulate they certainly were.  

Peppered with a few seasoned professionals like Margaret Blay, Sunny Morete and Maggie Maxwell, the 33 strong cast ensures that The Waste Land zings along at a perfect pace, creating beautifully a world of intelligence, splendour and elegance. Better even than that is the dreamlike quality sustained throughout which allows Eliot’s often mystical forays into the classical worlds of Dante, Ovid, Homer, Petronius, Shakespeare, Verlaine, Whitman and Sophocles to work effectively while never impeding or bewildering the forward movement of Eliot’s deeply personal and often elaborate journey.

Hurst’s lucid and unambiguous direction ensures that this 50 minute, in-the-round – or more correctly ‘in the oval’ – production is always visible, audible and accessible to the Sunday evening full house who may seemingly, to a casual observer, have gathered for a late afternoon high tea at the Savoy such is the sumptuousness of the setting and rich accuracy of the costumes (Jessika Verryt). 

Eliot is all about the narrative, the imagery, the interrogatory, the classical provocations and the language and this is where Hurst’s production truly shines.

Lead by an austere and imposing Madame Sostoris (Pat Quirke) the funereal Sibyls, replete with clicking knitting needles and an old school Victorian menace, provide an impressive backdrop and a non-vocal commentary that is at once chilling and unsettlingly eloquent. 

The use of sounds created by the actors is impressive throughout and enhance an already rich aural texture.

Plaudits also go to John Gibson for his excellent musical vignettes. As always they’re subtle, appropriate and seamlessly woven into the whole. 

Of Eliot’s five parts the third, The Fire Sermon, is the most effective with Hurst’s ensemble managing to separate and elucidate all of the intellectual complexities of the work without losing any of its innate eroticism and reference to increasingly decadent sexual dalliances.

The almost indecipherable bickering between St Augustine (his Confessions is, of course, the source) and Buddha, whose sermon of the same name provides the title to the piece, is cleverly managed.  The prevailing image of Tiresias – the wheelchair-bound blind seer who has ‘foresuffered all’ and who witnesses the deeply unsatisfying sexual experience of the young woman – will lurk in the psyche for a very long time.  

No ecstasy here, merely another of Eliot’s sad whimpers.

It’s difficult not to be drawn into the profound intimacy of Eliot’s own life via this fine production as it’s presented, warts and all, with no attempt made to pull a shade on the turbulence of Eliot’s tortured journey. It’s very powerful stuff and the question needs to be asked whether a younger cast with less life experience could have explored this path with the same degree of openness and candour that these fine people – with their three score years and five (minimum) travel on this earth – brought to the venture. I suspect not, and it is to the credit of McColl, Hurst and Gibson that they’ve recognised this extraordinary community resource and had the courage to stage a work of this nature.

No discredit to modern playwrights and their foibles but there are few in-depth roles for older folk and the side-by-side cults of youth and celebrity often preclude our being able to share the richness of lives lived that still have a good way to travel and a place in our theatrical tradition. 

It’s to be hoped this is a trend that will be explored fully, not just by the innovative Auckland Theatre Company but by other companies as well. After all, such a resource is there in every community.

There’s an audience too, for the stories of those in what must now be called ‘mid life’ because 65 has to be the new 40 and I’ll gird my pensioner’s loins and fight anyone who says otherwise! [The short 5-performance season was quickly sold out.]

And so it ends … 
Shantih  shantih  shantih!


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