“Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky.”
And so the cavernous space of the stunningly refurbished Wilton’s Music Hall echoed with the poetry of T.S. Eliot as actor Ben Whishaw lulled us through his reading of The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock.
Last night 250 avid listeners, gathered together to spend an evening absorbed in the work of one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.
The event marked the 50th anniversary of Eliot’s death and celebrated his deep-seated connections with the London Library for whom Eliot was president for 13 years.
Last night was, in a way, a reprise of what took place 50 years ago. When Eliot died in 1965 the talented dramatists of the day read out his poems, sharing the stage with Henry Moore sculptures, stage projections and music by Stravinsky. In comparison last night's event was paired down though the lineup was just as impressive.
Whishaw, Fiona Shaw, Simon Russell Beale, Sinead Cusack and Jeremy Irons each read a selection of Eliot's work reflecting on the passing of time, ageing, the fractious nature of life and the frustrations of sex and love.
There was something simultaneously bleak and enchanting about the bare stage, lit by lamps once owned by the poet himself and punctuated by small piles of his published works. It was a perfect setting for Eliot’s work which through it's familiarity both comforts and unsettles the listener.
The atmosphere was palpable as some leant forwards hoping to grasp meaning through proximity to the stage. There were audible gasps from our neighbour, a retired film director, as those famed lines “April is the cruellest month” from The Waste Land and “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper” from The Hollow Men, hung in the air.
In Fiona Shaw’s acclaimed performance of The Waste Land, it’s as if she had stepped inside the poem and although these are well trodden lines (Shaw performed this poem in the same venue back in 1997) each snapshot of a character was captured through her exaggerated gestures and facial expressions.
There was something captivating about being read to from the page and one of the highlights of the night was the collective reading of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.
Simon Russell Beale's performance of Macavity: The Mystery Cat was spot on, capturing the rhythm perfectly in his delivery, and Jeremy Irons made a convincing and charismatic Gus: The Theatre Cat.
Irons closed the night with Little Gidding. When he spoke the lines “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice.” the irony was all too apparent. Though Eliot speaks of “the withered stumps of time” his poems endure through the years. The young will grow old with Eliot’s words and the old will grow wise with them, yet his words remain timeless.
A Homage to T.S. Eliot took place at Wilton’s Music Hall on 21 October. Londonist saw this event on a complimentary ticket. A two-volume, annotated critical edition of TS Eliot’s poems is being published on 5 November by Faber and Faber.
All photos taken by Helen Maybanks, copyright London Library