Fiona Shaw Does The Police In Different Voices

The Waste Land Wilton’s Music Hall 03 January (Afternoon Performance)


It was on in New York, so it must be good...

A capacity crowd crammed into an extra performance of The Waste Land as monodrama, and for the first time in my visits there the derelict state of the venue was an important part of the experience.

Fiona Shaw appeared wearing the apparel of a female academic of a certain age (jeans, warm sweater, scarf) and we began, on a suitably bare stage.  From time to time (as in A Game of Chess) a spotlight threw a giant silhouette on the rear wall.

At the beginning, I was having my doubts about the enterprise–Miss Shaw was determined to display all of her actorly wares and the combination of her Irish accent (meaning that she rhotacistically pronounced her ‘r’s at the end of English words) and principled distaste for foreign languages (which meant that she didn’t pronounce her ‘r’s at the end of German words) was rather unsettling–Italian and (more surprisingly) French were treated with equal disdain.

And she sang as well–but at least didn’t attempt the helmsman’s song from Tristan und Isolde.

Surely if you take


in capitals as meaning you have to shout, then (for instance)

Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina

in italics ought to sound like Italian?  It also sounded like we had Phlebus the Phoenician (not Phlebas), and I’m not sure I’d have caught all of the words if I’d not known what they were already.

But The Fire Sermon and What the Thunder Said worked their anticipated magic, and I strode off to Tower Gateway happy enough with my afternoon’s entertainment.

Eliot vs Shaw

I’ve now had a listen to my recording of  T S Eliot reading The Waste Land, and there are some interesting findings.  Eliot (who reads or recites rather slowly) takes 25 minutes, as against 35 minutes for Shaw.  His style is incantatory-bleating, with the stresses carefully marked and a tendency to bleat when the line ends with an unstressed syllable, as against actress-showy for Shaw.  He shows no tendency to rhotacism (must have painstakingly eliminated it over the years), and in general the foreign insertions sound as though he knows how they ought to be, but he’s making concessions for an English-speaking audience.  And he pronounces ‘clairvoyante’ French-style, which is what you’d expect with that ‘e’ on the end.

He doesn’t sing, but his jug-jug-jug does sound like a nightingale.  He doesn’t shout HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME, but this section is where the comparison is most in Shaw’s favour.

In all, and leaving aside differences in knowledge of foreign languages, the basic contrast is that Eliot is trying to make it all sound like a unified whole, while Shaw emphasises the differences of the different voices.

So perhaps the logical answer would be for Miss Shaw to do one of the earlier versions–with more contrasted dramatic monologues and less pretence of unity–of what was originally called He Do The Police In Different Voices.

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2 Responses to “Fiona Shaw Does The Police In Different Voices”

  1. Conor Says:

    I fear you contradict yourself. And what Fiona does IS The Police in Many Voices. Elliot [I know] would be proud. I’ve never heard a better reading. And Fiona has brought the poem alive….for years now.

    You know Elliot himself was in the place that allowed him to construct the poem, but he could never do it justice as a reader. We need other people for that. If you are the Wasteland, how are you ever going to be objective enough to perform it?

    • notesofanidealist Says:

      I *may be* wrong, but I’m not aware of contradicting myself, so the contradiction would have to be pointed out to me!

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