Revisiting T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

An extraordinary reimagining of T. S. Eliot’s sexual, spiritual, bleak and beautiful 1922 poem, for its centenary. A sailor drowns, a Balinese dancer leaps into fire, a woman in turmoil meets blind seer Tiresias, and London Bridge starts falling down …

Revisiting T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land underlines the poem’s currency and potency for our own time. Eliot’s meditations on isolation and alienation take on whole new meanings a hundred years after he penned them. He grapples with themes that echo uncannily with the anxieties of our age—from a climate change crisis to the global pandemic—and with complementary feelings ranging from melancholy, loss and longing to the fear of death and the promise of renewal and rebirth.

The film offers a contemporary, and a South-East Asian take on Eliot’s 434-line poem, while reinforcing its unique power as a densely fragmented mosaic of classical allusions, social critiques and splintered narratives. While largely set in London, the poem frequently alludes to Asian cultures and religions. The film explores the vivid imagery of Asia’s landscapes, symbols and cultural ceremonies to ignite surprising connections with Eliot’s themes, and to conjure arresting visual and aural juxtapositions between East and West.

It draws on research into Eliot’s underlying conceptions, for example, that all the poem’s female characters are “one woman”, by casting one actor (Kristina Pakhomova) in all the female roles; and the poem’s performativity is highlighted with sequences played out in theatre settings. What Eliot once termed the “music of poetry” is indispensable to The Waste Land’s meaning, and “aural qualities such as rhythm, sonority, verbal orchestration, and tempo” are keys to unlocking its ideas, symbols and significance [Paul Chancellor]. An original ‘musique concrète’ sound design by award-winning Singaporean composer, Joyce Beetuan Koh offers complex sonic layers to enhance appreciation of the text, and to reinforce its power and potency for a contemporary audience.

Directed by Steve Dixon (Singapore)

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