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Theatre review: Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot (Harold Pinter Theatre)

10 December 2021

Simon Walsh reviews a stage adaptation of Eliot’s Four Quartets

© Matt Humphrey

Ralph Fiennes in Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot at the Pinter Theatre, London

Ralph Fiennes in Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot at the Pinter Theatre, London

THERE is a liturgical element to T. S. Eliot. His quotations from the Prayer Book, the Authorised Version, and Anglican divines are acknowledged, but there is more. At times, the sonorous tone of his work is of a piece with liturgy, perhaps because he shared with W. B. Yeats that sense of poetry as public art — almost a branch of rhetoric — and to be declaimed. For Eliot, that declaiming is often from the pulpit or lectern, which explains why his lines so effortlessly and often slip into sermons.

The performative Eliot has now been taken up by Ralph Fiennes, one of our greatest actors to match a great poet. Both Dante and Shakespeare were huge influences on Eliot, and, in his one-man show of Four Quartets, Fiennes gives us the journeyman-poet with the fluency and hinterland of the Bard’s big roles. Billed as the “world première stage adaptation”, it is now on a London run of 35 performances, having toured regional theatres and been initiated as a project between Bath and Northampton.

Fiennes directs and acts in Hildegard Bechter’s simple set of two backdrop tablets that revolve, a chair, a desk, and basic costumes: nothing to detract too much from the words. Tim Lutkin’s lighting evokes the seasonal, cosmic themes, and Christopher Shutt’s sound design thrillingly evokes birdsong one moment, crashing waves at the beginning of “The Dry Salvages” the next.

Fiennes brings depth to what is not a true part, but traces vocal links with earlier works like “Prufrock” and The Waste Land, written before Eliot composed the Quartets at the beginning of the Second World War. He inhabits them, finding the existential character, and meets the religious themes, even kneeling as in prayer at one point. “On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel History is now and England.” It was a tour de force.

Four Quartets is at the Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton Street, London SW1, until 18 December. Phone 03330 096690. Atgtickets.com/shows/four-quartets

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