Four Quartets – Harold Pinter Theatre, London

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer: T.S.Eliot

Director: Ralph Fiennes

Some people learned to bake over lockdown; some people did nothing. Ralph Fiennes memorised T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, long poems that ruminate on the nature of time. But despite Fiennes’ passion and the theatrical staging, Eliot’s poetry remains dense and obscure.

Eliot suggests that we know nothing but the present and that the past and the future are both foreign countries, forever unknowable. ‘What might have been and what has been’ Eliot says ‘Point to one end, which is always present.’ This line comes in the first poem ‘Burnt Norton’, named after a Cotswold manor house. Eliot leads the reader through its garden, but description of flowers and pools soon turns into philosophy and rhetoric.

Eliot’s poetry rarely rhymes and it lacks a consistent metre. There’s little alliteration and assonance keeping the lines together. Instead the repetition of words and ideas give these poems a sense of shape, and Fiennes’ delivery, serious and wry, make these poems feel heavy and important like the standing stones that tower behind him in Hildegard Bechtler’s set. But because the ideas are so complex and full of contradictions – ‘Neither flesh nor fleshless;/Neither from nor towards… neither ascent nor decline’ – the poems remain as mysterious as the stones too.

Barefoot, Fiennes appears to be an older man – perhaps Eliot, but there is no transatlantic accent in Fiennes’ poet voice. But this old man grasps at ideas, looking for meaning in a world busy fighting another war. There is peace somewhere and perhaps it comes in the places he visits – East Coker and Little Gidding – or remembers from his childhood –  The Dry Salvages – and the ghosts that now haunt them.

Fiennes doesn’t illuminate the poems. His performance doesn’t make the poems any less impenetrable but he does give the lines rhythm, and Tim Lutkin’s lights and Christopher Shutt’s sound add a sense of drama. In a true Eliot contradiction, the 75 minutes neither go quickly or slowly. Like Eliot’s Chinese jar, the evening ‘moves perpetually in its stillness’.

Runs until 18 December 2021

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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