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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Four Quartets at the Harold Pinter Theatre, review: a tour de force by Ralph Fiennes

“There is no end, but addition: the trailing consequence of further days and hours.” So intones Ralph Fiennes in this staged recital of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets and, forgive the heresy, but I wonder how many audience members during this 75-minute show sometimes found the poem’s evocation of minutes accumulating irrevocably and interminably just a little bit too resonant.

Buckle up, though: opportunities to witness Eliot’s magnificently austere opus about the physics and philosophy of time in a relatively intimate setting by one of our greatest actors are few and far between. Fiennes throws down a gauntlet to any lingering lockdown stagnation in the brains of his audience with this one-man show, directed by himself and which arrives in London after a regional tour. 

The pandemic-era timing reaps its own richly suggestive rewards: Eliot composed the Four Quartets between 1936 and 1942 as a response to the spiritual devastations of the encroaching war and its four distinct parts offer not only tonally varying meditations on our mortal relationship to God’s cosmic omnipotence, but an intimation of civilisation itself as precipitously precarious. In 2021, one can read into its apocalyptic anxiety not only our own uncertainties post Covid, but the lurching threat of environmental disaster, too.

Fiennes approaches all this in a spirit of collective inquiry. Appearing bare foot on a near empty stage, a monkish table and chair the only props, he resembles an outcast in the desert, or even a holy fool. With hands turned outwards in a gesture of invitation, he seems to almost physically lead us through the door we did not open into the rose garden in the poem’s marvellous opening sequence on the deceptions of memory. 

He is all lugubrious, long vowels, quizzical shrugs, playful and beautifully sonorous delivery. He raises his arms in exultation, shakes his head in frustration, cocks his head at the audience in confiding bewilderment. He is at his very best when summoning Eliot’s fleeting earthy imagery, be it “the need to lean against the bank while a van passes” in a Somerset village; the “untamed, intractable” holy roar of the River Thames at the start of The Dry Salvages (the third part of the quartet); the wryly comforting, prosaic familiarity of a London street in the “distress of nations and perplexity, whether on the shores of Asia or the Edgware Road”.

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