Ralph Fiennes, Four Quartets and the future of theatre

It’s impossible to hear Eliot’s meditations and not be reminded of our current national ordeal

Artillery Row

Last year, some bright spark had an exceptionally good idea while discussing the future of national and regional theatre in a post-covid world. Given how many leading British actors emerged from drama groups and repertory theatres in their local area, the suggestion went, why not ask twenty or thirty leading actors to, if you will, “return home” for very limited runs in small playhouses and venues? 

Thus, for instance, Sir Patrick Stewart could perform his one-man A Christmas Carol in the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield for a fortnight, and Olivia Colman could take part in Beckett’s Happy Days at the Theatre Royal in Norwich. Not only would this enable theatregoers to have the comparatively rare experience of seeing A-list performers in intimate settings, but it would also revitalise Britain’s provincial theatres, many of which were struggling financially even before their doors were unavoidably closed for months

This has, disappointingly, not come to pass, with a few exceptions. In the West End, uber-producer Sonia Friedman has launched a series of new plays, with well-known actors like Gemma Arterton and Emma Corrin starring, which are designed to be fleet of foot and easy to stage in the new socially distanced era that we are part of. And, closer to the original idea, the great actor Ralph Fiennes has begun travelling across the country with a one-man show of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets. 

Arguably there are points at which Fiennes-as-director could do more for Fiennes-as-actor

He has visited Bath and Oxford, and is set to head to Cambridge, Northampton, Malvern and Southampton, and possibly more, too. Given that he could have easily made a fortune playing guest villain or authority figure in a blockbuster during the months that he will be touring Britain, this shows both remarkable commitment to the theatre, as well as doing something that is neither immediately accessible or obviously commercial. Although, judging by the sold-out audience on its first night in Oxford queuing round the block to get in, the combination of Fiennes and Eliot is as blockbuster as it gets in these straitened times. 

The central difficulty with the four poems that comprise Eliot’s work is that they are not an obvious subject for theatrical performance. I wondered how Fiennes — who has directed as well as starring — would approach them. A mere recitation, although an impressive feat of memory, would seem dramatically inert, while a full-blown “show”, complete with projections, scene changes, other actors and what have you, might end up overwhelming the verse itself. In the event, Fiennes has, typically intelligently, achieved a compromise between the two forms. He comes on stage with the house lights still raised, a humble and almost diffident figure amidst Hildegard Bechtler’s towering, monolithic set. He is barefoot and dressed in what might be workman’s clothes of jacket, shirt and trousers. There is a tantalising ambiguity as to who he is – are we watching Fiennes as “himself”, Eliot, an Everyman figure or someone else entirely? 

At the end of the absorbing 75 minutes, it is still not entirely clear whether Fiennes is performing in character or not. Nor does it much matter. He handles the technical challenges of reciting thousands of lines of verse superbly, at times speaking as conversationally and informally as if he was addressing an old friend in prose, and at others deliberately adjusting his voice to take on more dramatic and theatrical registers. He sings; he dances; he acknowledges the Forties setting of Eliot’s poetry by speaking into a radio mic at one point, as if he were a BBC broadcaster, as a snatch of Benny Goodman’s “Don’t Be That Way” plays. Most thrillingly, during the climatic “Little Gidding”, he appears at one point to walk into apocalyptic fire itself, helped immensely by Tim Lutkin’s lighting design and Christopher Shutt’s unobtrusive but effective sound collage.

Eliot’s poems are undeniably difficult. If Fiennes was performing, say, Betjeman or Larkin, there would be less intellectual reach involved – not to denigrate the finest poet of the second half of the twentieth century – but there would also be less reward. It helps immensely to have read Four Quartets before attending the evening, so that his reflections on life, death, religion and rebirth are fresh in the mind, but Fiennes manages to make the entire work seem approachable, if not always clear. 

Helped by James Dacre, there is an intrinsic theatricality here that smooths over some of the more difficult passages and moments

Helped by the presence of the director James Dacre (credited here as “creative producer”, a title I’m not familiar with), there is an intrinsic theatricality here that smooths over some of the more difficult passages and moments. And the language is rich and almost seductive, with some of Eliot’s most famous phrases – “Humankind cannot bear very much reality” and “In my beginning is my end” – given full force of performance by their interpreter. 

It is a marvellous evening at the theatre, occasional moments of obscurity aside. Arguably there are points at which Fiennes-as-director could do more for Fiennes-as-actor – the movements could sometimes be bigger, the gestures grander. But on the other hand, it would be bizarre to spend an evening in the metaphorical company of dancing girls and a full pit orchestra, even if Eliot himself might have enjoyed a more bizarrely humorous interpretation of his work, given his own tastes. It is a personal triumph for Fiennes, who has previous experience of one-man shows after performing in David Hare’s monologue Beat the Devil last summer. Even in these socially distanced times, this should see regional theatres receiving some much-needed revenue from his starry presence. 

And, of course, it is impossible to sit in an audience of one’s peers and hear Eliot’s meditations on death and life and not be reminded of the national ordeal that we have been through, and continue to suffer the slings and arrows of. Someone once said that an audience in the theatre arrive as strangers and leave as a unit, with the experience of having watched a performance acting as a bond. Yet as I gazed over at the mask-clad spectators, rapt in attention and admiration, I could only hope that the lines in “Little Gidding”, so beautifully delivered by Fiennes, would act as a prophecy for both theatre and for life generally:

History may be servitude,
History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.
Sin is Behovely, but
All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well.

Four Quartets starring Ralph Fiennes is at Oxford Playhouse until 26 June, and then touring.

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