Even before Ralph Fiennes steps barefoot onto the stage of London’s Harold Pinter Theatre, the paying customers who have come to watch him perform T. S. Eliot’s gnarly, glorious “Four Quartets” (until December 18) are faced with a piece of dramaturgical brilliance: Hildegard Bechtler’s daring, monumental set.
Here, two blue-gray walls, like gigantic York stone monoliths, are set at an angle, with a hint of white light just visible in the dark crack between them. These looming suggestive forms frame Eliot’s spiritual journey: a meditation that veers between the divine and the diurnal, between the hope of transcendence and the despair of our brief moment in time. They are the visual correlatives to the poem’s opening lines: “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future.”
Fiennes, who also directed the show, explained his particular approach to the poem recently to the BBC. “The thing is to keep it present. It’s an experience I’m sharing with you now. I’m not reporting on ideas that I’ve worked out. It’s a present tense unfolding of this inquiry,” he said.
As the piece begins, when Fiennes walks out from the wings to take his seat at a downstage chair and table, the monumental shapes have the effect of thrusting him toward the audience, making him at once more vulnerable and more immediately available to the spectators. We are suddenly placed in the complex drama of the poem’s now—the confusion of competing eloquent ghostly voices. “What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present.” By incarnating Eliot’s words with his own improvisational semaphore, reminiscent of Paul Sills’s Story Theatre, the shoeless Fiennes literally enacts the poem’s existential atmosphere: “Footfalls echo in the memory.”
Fiennes’s barefoot appearance does another smart theatrical thing: it tells the audience to relax. At a stroke, the gesture signals a lightness of spirit and banishes reverential gravity from the evening. If you listen to Eliot’s own somber Received Pronunciation reading of “Four Quartets” (YouTube), the drone of his starchy voice numbs the mind. There is something airless, cut-off, distancing in his crisp, elocuted delivery.
“The thing is to keep it present.”
By contrast, Fiennes’s kinetic performance is at once cunning and child-like. For instance, in the opening of “Burnt Norton,” he ushers us into the garden (“Shall we follow? / Quick, said the bird, find them, find them”), then follows the “unheard music” of the birds into the shrubbery, then moves with the guests in “a formal pattern / Along the empty alley.”
In the mind’s eye, the whole terrain of memory is outlined before us: the drained pool, the quietly rising lotus, the children full of laughter. So that when the bird suddenly speaks, its words land with a nuanced wallop: “Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.”
About a decade ago, Fiennes recorded the “Four Quartets” but wondered if the words might mean more by having them inside him rather than just reading them. During the first coronavirus lockdown, he decided to challenge himself to learn its thousand or so lines. Actors are athletes of the spirit, a word whose root is Latin for breath. “I had a hunch that being spoken it might be more accessible,” Fiennes told the BBC, of his herculean endeavor. He added, “I think our auditory sensibility can grasp meaning often better than when we’re reading.”
Fiennes is one of England’s finest actors; his muscular intelligence engages with Eliot’s words in a wholly different, sensual way. He caresses the language and winkles out subtle shadings to the words. He can make you feel not just the heat but the languor of a bright afternoon, where the dazzle is as much in the sound as in the sight:
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes,
And the deep lane insists on the direction
Into the village, in the electric heat
Hypnotised. In a warm haze the sultry light
Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone.
The dahlias sleep in the empty silence.
Wait for the early owl.
“You don’t want to be over-demonstrating or over-explicit,” Fiennes said of acting the poem. Nonetheless, he exudes what the scholarly, inhibited Eliot sorely lacked, that come-hither thing. Eliot’s arcane idiom is exclusive; by contrast, Fiennes’s performance of the poem wants a mass communication. His goal is to make the audience feel the shape of Eliot’s thought as much as parse its meaning. “There is only the dance,” Eliot says. And in his way, Fiennes’s performance is some kind of dance.
Fiennes’s barefoot appearance does another smart theatrical thing: it tells the audience to relax.
The shape and rhythm of Eliot’s words play on his body and inspire it. Captivated by his physical discoveries, the audience leans into the language and glimpses inside it. “Here is a place of disaffection / Time before and time after,” Fiennes says in “Burnt Norton,” tracing the arc of Time with his hand and the diminuendo of his voice. Sometimes by taking a slow run-up to Eliot’s paradoxes, Fiennes can release the profundity buried in them. For instance, Eliot’s evocation of the “twittering world”—”Distracted from distraction by distraction”—jumps out as a prophetic description of our digital age. And when he comes to the point in “Little Gidding” when Eliot says:
A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now …
Here, Fiennes takes a long pause, before adding:
… and England.
The extended beat clinches Eliot’s notion of the past and the future coalescing in the present.
As Fiennes navigated the poem, a feat of physical and imaginative boldness, I suddenly saw him as a guide shooting the rapids of Eliot’s torrent of sound and sense: bouncing off the rocks of paradox, the whirlpools of metaphor, and whipping us with a sure brisk hand along the slick patches of Eliot’s straight talk about his craft:
… And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion …
At the end of the poem, Fiennes rests on his chair with his head bowed for 30 seconds or so, releasing himself and the audience from the thrilling difficult journey they’ve taken together. Even this is part of the production’s surprise: sitting with stillness, after all, is part of Eliot’s message. To an audience deadened by media babble and tickled to death by boulevard entertainment, Fiennes has offered something purifying and uncompromising and suggestive. It’s his Christmas gift to a coronavirus-winded London. We leave full of gratitude for his articulate energy.
John Lahr is, among other things, a columnist for AIR MAIL