Four Quartets – Harold Pinter Theatre

Ralph Fiennes intricately delivers T.S. Eliot’s mordant poem, in a simple production which communicates, but rarely interprets, its swirling images and ideas

Ralph Fiennes in Four Quartets

‘In my beginning is my end. […] In my end is my beginning.’

From ‘Burnt Norton’, Four Quartets, by T.S. Eliot

So begins (and ends) ‘East Coker’, the second of the four poems which make up T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, which now receives a major solo rendition in the West End, self-directed by Ralph Fiennes. Widely considered Eliot’s last great poetic work, it is a text deeply concerned with time, beyond the limitations of human perception – influenced by traditions and texts ranging from the Pre-Socratics in Ancient Greece to Hinduism, Julian of Norwich and his own ‘anglo-catholic’ beliefs (as he self-described, without the customary capitalisation, in 1929).

Eliot writes with an after-dinner wit and a focused philosophical seriousness all at once, which is dryly conveyed by Fiennes’ manner, fluctuating between offhand and earnestly supplicatory at a moment’s notice. Lines such as ‘You say I am repeating / Something I have said before. I shall say it again. / Shall I say it again?’ epitomise this wry, almost coy, sense of profound uncertainty. Not even the order of events in time – nor the very notion of time itself – is reliable. The repetitiousness – in phrasing, but also its many alliterative echoes – create the sense of swimming through a sea of confusion, even fear. Yet there is something about the form of theatre, compared to poetry, which makes Fiennes’ Four Quartets feel more straightforward, from a defined beginning to end, even with its looping diversions, repetitions and echoes.

Ralph Fiennes in Four Quartets

I had considered the inherent linearity of theatre a couple of weeks earlier, watching (the excellent) little scratch at Hampstead Theatre. The text of Rebecca Watson’s novel is arguably ergodic – a term used particularly in relation to ‘cybertexts’, generally characterised by a difficulty built into in reading them. Effort is required in finding a path through the text. There might not be a definite order, its typesetting and printing deliberately obstructing its would-be reader. In little scratch – a far more reader-friendly version of this form than some – this meant different phrases scattered across the page – simultaneous yet separate, showing rapid overlapping thoughts and external stimuli. One of the few aspects lost its very faithful conversion to stage by adaptor Miriam Battye and director Katie Mitchell was this inherent formal uncertainty. The challenge of how to read (and speak) the text was tried and tested in the rehearsal room in advance – making the experience of watching far more passive by comparison.

Four Quartets is also concerned with paths and journeys. In ‘Burnt Norton’, the first of the four sections (published separately over six years, before being collected together in 1943), Eliot opens by considering the ‘passage we did not take’ before moving through a rose garden. In the final poem, ‘Little Gidding’, he contemplates ‘the route you would likely take / From the place you would likely come from’, before ending by ‘arriv[ing] where we started’. Not only – as is often examined – is Four Quartets fascinated by beginnings and endings, but passing between them is also a vexed, hypothetical, elusive matter. It seems somewhat antithetical to the blurred distinctions of beginning and end for the piece to finish with applause and bowing – those familiar signifiers of finality. Perhaps it was this desire to avoid the formal cliches of theatre that inspired the production’s decision not to dim the house lights for several minutes into the play.

Yet, as little scratch transformed into something more linear and external when placed on stage, Four Quartets also shifts into a far more linear work in Ralph Fiennes’ performance. It is not that Eliot’s poems are to be thought of as formally non-linear themselves. Giorgio Agamben’s definition of poetry as having ‘the possibility of enjambment’ implicitly argues that a poem’s fundamental property – differentiating it from all other forms – is its lineation. With the exception of some reverse poems and experiments in ‘cybertext’, the form is defined by downward movement. Even the historicist mode of literary criticism commonly applied to Eliot is steeped in cause and effect, and the linear narrative of Eliot’s own life. His conversion to Christianity is a dominant framework for interpreting his developing poetic style (especially compared to the avowed atheism of The Waste Land and ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’).

However, a reader of Eliot is certainly not as constrained as a viewer is – free to skip back, retrace the logic of Eliot’s circular arguments, or compare repeated images. In an audience, we have no choice but to let the words wash over us; there is no going back, the performance prioritising our feelings over the possibility of a particularly detailed intellectual engagement. Though Fiennes never rushes the verse, delivering it with a finely tuned, methodical intensity, there is little space to think about the words for more than a moment, for fear of missing what comes next.

Ralph Fiennes in Four Quartets

Fiennes – as both performer and director – seems engaged in an earnest attempt to share his passion for Four Quartets. He matches the text’s seriousness and sense of philosophical inquiry, while stressing its lighter moments of occasional comedy when they come. I personally prefer Eliot’s earlier writing, when his sometimes-nihilistic worldview is tempered by a rich poetic wit and singularly vivid command of imagery. In this later work, religion interposes, though with little of the usually attendant salvation, hope or delight; the possibility of the divine only seems to make human lives smaller, less definable and more adrift in the currents of time.

Given Fiennes’ apparent sincerity, I am sure that he has many insightful readings of Eliot’s text which I would be curious to read were he to essay his thoughts. Yet on stage, Fiennes’ own ideas remain largely opaque – which Eliot’s are also elusive. Instead, what we get is a generalised sense of profundity – with Fiennes small and barefoot beneath the two hulking stone monoliths behind him, designed by Hildegard Bechtler – combined with a general tendency to literalise the text in performance. In ‘East Coker’, the speaker’s simile ‘As, in a theatre, / The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed’ is dramatized by the dimming of the house lights into complete darkness. During ‘Burnt Norton’, Fiennes sits at the end of a stanza, before beginning the next: ‘Descend lower’. He duly sits cross-legged on the floor. Elsewhere, he dances. The description of ‘this twittering world’ that we inhabit draws laughter – but the joke is coincidental, an instance of accidental foresight rather than textual revelation.

Ralph Fiennes in Four Quartets

This production is the outcome of Fiennes’ lockdown endeavours – and the work is tinged by it, as its last three poems are by the toll of World War Two and the bombing of London. Its quiet and uncertain, yet intense philosophy is in part Eliot’s response to contemporary crisis, and Fiennes finds similar connections to ours: a sense of time losing its meaning, the unknown path forward (where progress out of lockdown is reversed by new variants), and the sense that humans are tiny in the face of oblivion and nature. Yet the play rarely commits to a comparison, instead only implying similitude to our current situation.

I appreciated the experience of the play as a chance to encounter the poem anew – but wished that we could have been offered more of an interpretation of Four Quartets than just the well-performed, emotive, though sometimes-too-literal delivery Fiennes gives. Perhaps it is a limitation of the form, and its driving linearity, which bends the text into a somewhat new shape. Some will be awed by it, and arguably that is part of the point; after all, Four Quartets is in part about feeling small when considering timelessness and the divine. Others, though, will feel like they’re eating their greens – in much the same way as some Shakespeare-viewers may feel. I enjoyed Fiennes’ production as an evening in the company of an enthusiast, sharing his delight in something to which I was almost already converted. I was not convinced, however, that the emotions of the text had been truly mined – instead only grafted on, while the text was spoken to us, rather than revealed.

Four Quartets

Written by T.S. Eliot, Performed and Directed by Ralph Fiennes, Designed by Hildegard Bechtler, Lighting Design by Tim Lutkin, Sound Design by Christopher Shutt, Assistant Directed by Eva Sampson, Movement by Fin Walker.
Reviewed 2nd December 2021

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