Ralph Fiennes’ staging of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London – which ended its run just before Christmas – is a musing on infinite time and how time is redemptive. Eliot thought of it as one meditative poem, not four separate poems, so staging it without an interval (it lasts over an hour) works memorably. That many in the audience wore masks is a reminder of the ubiquity of illness – not just physical illness but the moral decay of the 20th century.
Fiennes had brought to us a gift. On a slimmed down stage containing two chairs, a desk, a lamp and two grey panels, Fiennes, in a brown corduroy jacket, dark trousers and a button-down chemise, dances the beat of the poetic abstractions of time, and explains “the eternal” has nothing to do with “us” or “our feelings”. “Attached to the soil”, “Earth-feet”, “loam feet” – all walk through the rose garden before the feet go “under” the earth. The higher meaning here not being a limited corporeal reality, but rather it has a transitory, elative and expansive discourse on the unknowable perpetual time, “a kind of valediction, faded on the blowing of the horn”.
Eliot’s publisher brought together the Four Quartets – four separate poetic works written over six years during the Second World War, entitled Burnt Norton, East Cocker, The Dry Salvages and Little Gidding, 1935-42 – to unite several of his great themes on man’s relationship to time, the metaphysical universe and the impression of the divine. From many years of considered thought, he developed a language to discuss time, values and the meanings of existence, both within, and without, a traditional moral Christian narrative. Eliot’s poems reference Virgil’s Georgics, and the invocation of “the shadows” as “the ghost wife” Eurydice who must be returned to the underworld upon Orpheus’ unbearable longing to see her again, and be joined in their gaze. Eliot also invokes Dante’s Commedia and his extensive explorations of life, transcendence and the Inferno. Fiennes transmits Eliot’s language through his feet and fingers, his eyes and sighs, and resuscitates the poetic emergency kit from its usual resting place on the modernist bookshelf.
Fiennes admitted in an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that he had always been fascinated by Four Quartets but was drawn to it again during the first lockdown and decided to set himself the challenge of memorising the work. The time he had during lockdown changed his feelings about it, and he felt Eliot had something to say to our time. Although he was not sure what the outcome of this memorising would be, he gradually felt that a staging of the Four Quartets could be possible.
It is not a straightforward work to stage. “You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance. You must go through the way in which you are not, and what you do not know is the only thing you know.” Fiennes too follows Eliot’s lead in self-exploration in grappling with the manner in which one creates a “visual language” of storytelling to express the depths, the humour and the alliteration of the Four Quartets. In searching within himself, Fiennes has created a way to express his visions through precise diction, pacing, timing of words, and physically mapping his place on the stage with slowed-down intent. There are other considered moments when speaking of “constellated wars”, “fights with the sun”, and “comets weeping”, when he is literally drawing in the air in front of our eyes.
Through Fiennes’ acting and directing, personal musings on mortality and language, his production of the Four Quartets has become one of his greatest moments on the stage. Fiennes wills his audience to try and follow the MC Escher-like rhetorical, metaphysical stairs, by using his body as a dancer’s. Hopping and sliding his weight, balancing between both feet, while miming the “circulation of the lymph”, “keeping time, keeping rhythm” in the “time of the milking, the harvesting, the coupling of the man and woman, and that of beasts”, as well as balancing into a dancing squat invoking “dung and death”.
Through Fiennes, we as an audience have been presented with a moment of conscious human significance, individual in understanding, public in its transmission. Fiennes carries on. In 85 minutes, he ignites the power of time and the perennial meanings, reminding us, after the three stages of contemplation, “that all will be well”.
Ralph Fiennes is utterly transcendent. Whatever next?
Ralph Fiennes directed and starred in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets
This article first appeared in the January 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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