By Mark Bolsover
Despite a quite charming Tim Burton-inspired goth/steam punk design, binraku puppetry, and the interesting choice of Chekov and T.S. Eliot as textual bed-fellows, in ‘The Waste Land Sisters’, The Basement Company present a slightly flat surrealist piece, apparently unable to address or to move beyond the anachronisms it throws up.
The show frames its four perfomers’ ‘mash-up’ rendition of extracts from Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ through the central situation of the characters of Chekov’s ‘Three Sisters’. Though the show does well in general terms to draw on the obvious tonal parallel between the two texts—both anchored in an oppressive sense of the need for release or redemption from immediate political and cultural realities, and an absurd and seemingly endless repetitively cyclical struggle against futility—it never addresses the anachronisms which must inevitably spring up in historical and political contexts and detail between Chekov’s very obviously pre-Russian Revolution play and Eliot’s post-World War One poem, or, beyond the tonal parallel, why these two texts and artists have been coupled together in this way, and this seems a significant elision or oversight. Much more needed to be made of this to justify the use of the two texts.
The show is very well-designed, from the minimal, authentic period set and props to the costume and make up, and anchors itself in the reality contemporary to Chekov’s play. It is, aesthetically, extremely well-suited to its venue in Summerhall’s beautiful Anatomy Lecture Theatre and makes good use of the features of the space (including the blackboards). From the outset, the show draws on the obvious influence of Tim Burton. The live musical introduction (accompanying a good score) is eerie and compelling, working well with the acoustics of the space, and the curiously mannered, mechanical doll-like physical performances by the cast (carried on throughout) work well. This is, ultimately, a piece concerned with style. And it is very stylish.
Some good use is made of the source texts. The show is episodic and fragmented, with the slightly surreal trope of recitation of the texts—moving, jerkily, from the mechanical to the elaborately performed—clearly standing in (so to speak) for the dialogue of which the characters are clearly incapable. However, the parallel here seems purely (simply) general and tonal, and there is actually very little genuine textual engagement or insight here. The texts seem to function as the only things that it makes sense to draw on and to perform in the absurd, gothic reality of the characters.
Little is made, for example, of the structure and (complex) proliferation of, and distinction between, voices in the Eliot. This is not so much of a problem in the recitation of the opening of the poem (although ‘Marie’, the ‘hyacinth girl’, and the voice in the desert are somewhat problematically glossed and blurred here). The approach becomes far more of a problem when the company recite, for example, ‘The Fire Sermon’ section, eliding the complex and disturbing sexual politics by reducing the encounter of ‘the typist’ and ‘the young man carbuncular’ into a curious song and dance routine, mashing it up (for reasons unclear) with an otherwise good and interesting musical setting of the ‘Shakespearian rag’ from ‘A Game of Chess’ (the recitation of which features some offensively awful accent work).
Elsewhere, the introduction of two binraku puppets is, seemingly, arbitrary. The puppets are beautiful and the voice acting here is really very good, though more physical work and training with the actors might have smoothed out the performance and made it more articulate.
Overall, while the tonal parallel between the source texts works here, it casts no new light on either the Chekov or the Eliot. The design is smart, the company look great, and their physical performances are effective, but the show seems a somewhat superficial appropriation of its subject matter, eliding historical and political consciousness and nuance. This is in many ways, perhaps, a triumph of style despite substance.
The Waste Land Sisters, Summerhall (Venue 26) until the 24th August