Ralph Fiennes is the most literary and self-challenging of actor-directors. For the cinema – beyond his world-famous turn as Voldemort in the Harry Potter films – he’s adapted Shakespeare (‘Coriolanus’), explored the messy romantic life of Charles Dickens (‘The Invisible Woman’) and directed a biopic of the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev almost entirely in Russian (‘The White Crow’).
So it’s no great surprise that the same determined performer and creator would now be spending 75 minutes alone on a West End stage performing hundreds of lines of dense, inquiring TS Eliot poetry – a staggering project that he initiated himself during lockdown (the shadow of which hangs over the whole affair).
It’s a massive achievement, bewildering and otherworldly in its intensity, even if it’s near-impossible (for me, at least) to give Eliot’s words the same forensic attention in the theatre as they demand on the page.
It’s a massive achievement, bewildering and otherworldly
Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ reach for the stars in their attempt to make sense of time, existence, religion and other big philosophical questions. Eliot wrote these powerful, ambitious verses as four separate poems, later collected together, in the ’30s and ’40s, with three written during the peril of war (when Eliot was acting as a watchman during the Blitz at the Faber building in Bloomsbury, where he was based as a publisher).
The threat of oblivion and the darkness of national crisis are palpable, but Eliot’s existential queries are mostly timeless, something stressed by Hildegard Bechtler’s design, which centres on two giant granite-like slabs towering over the actor. Like Stonehenge, they remind us of how tiny we are in the overall arc of time. Tim Lutkin’s lighting design does similar, plunging us into complete darkness at one point, just to stress how we’re all afloat in the celestial black.
Fiennes’ performance – barefoot, earthy, flipping between serenity and possession – pivots between world-weary and wide-eyed. His presence offers something of the monkish academic. It’s mostly deeply serious but there are comic moments too – with him having fun with talk of ‘twittering’ and Eliot’s more earthbound references to taking the tube. This is weighty, powerful stuff, fuelled by Eliot’s deep thought and Fiennes’s committed, courageous performance.