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Ralph Fiennes reading TS Eliot’s sombre poem cycle about time, spirituality and death isn’t everyone’s idea of a great night at the theatre – indeed, it’s the polar opposite of Cats. I found this intimate evening, with an actor who gets more interesting the further away he gets from movie stardom, a moving, thought-provoking event, though there are times when its lulling rhythms cause the attention to wander.
Eliot’s Four Quartets were written over a six-year period, three of them while his adopted England was subject to wartime bombing: a sense of mortality looms large. They’re loosely themed around the four elements and the four seasons, each named for and rooted in a place that inspired him – the manor house Burnt Norton, Massachusetts sea-reef the Dry Salvages, the village parishes of East Coker and Little Gidding.
Throughout the cycle, Eliot blends literary references and his own Catholic beliefs with Eastern religion, paganism and a philosophical musing on the function of time. That’s a lot to pack into 70 minutes, and it’s no surprise that Fiennes, in his brown corduroy jacket and grey slacks, somewhat resembles a teacher, albeit one who’s gone barefoot for some reason. Brow furrowed, eyes rueful, mouth set, he’s determined to impart profound truths, doubtful we’ll understand.
His delivery is mostly urgent and incantatory, forcefully hitting the same note on each word, though broken up with conversational moments and one passage that he speaks into an old-fashioned microphone with the tones of a 1940s BBC announcer. He savours equally Eliot’s elegant phrasing and sometimes arcane vocabulary, and even gives a wry smile on the line: “Not here the darkness in this twittering world.”
Fiennes is also the director, and tries to make this a performance, not just a reading. He stalks between two chairs and a desk in front of two slab-like monoliths, designed by Hildegard Bechtler to frame bursts of spring sunshine or a fiery horizon. Tim Lutkin’s lighting design, including moments of almost total darkness, potently enhances the atmosphere.
Even with such dense material, Fiennes casts a compelling spell. It’s a pleasure to hear him speak and feel these worlds, though I confess I drifted off a couple of times and had to force myself to refocus. Loyal to the theatre even at the height of his film fame, he’s become a far more complex and textured actor with age.
This project started as a tour, a conscious, admirable use of his celebrity to entice audiences back to regional theatres, and it’s in London for just 35 performances. Fiennes was one of the first actors back on the London stage when the first lockdown eased – in David Hare’s Beat the Devil at the Bridge theatre - and now he’s back with a show as challenging as it is potentially rewarding. Good on him.
Harold Pinter Theatre, to Dec 18; haroldpintertheatre.co.uk