Four Quartets – Harold Pinter Theatre

Translating poetry to the stage can be challenging for both performer and audience, the importance of the language while alive and vivid on the page can feel verbose or intangible, even static, when read aloud. Get it wrong and it can feel stilted and incomprehensible, get it right, even with the most complex poetic imagery, and it can be a magical, inclusive experience that takes us back to the simplest and most pure forms of communication – a single person telling a story. And of course, much will depend on the verse that’s being adapted; whether it contains multiple characters given distinct voices who can be dramatised even within someone else’s narrative, or whether it is a singular collection of thoughts, impressions and philosophies through which the speaker moves alone or in conversation with the silent reader.

The National Theatre produced a marvellous version of Under Milk Wood earlier this year, arguable a radio play for voices but still poetic in vocal style in which Director Lyndsey Turner gave a deep emotional resonance to Dylan Thomas’s words by pitching it as a memory play, wrapping the central poem in a wider narrative about reconnection between a father and son. Ralph Fiennes’s adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets is a tougher proposition with no storyline as such, only the protagonist-poet reflecting, like Thomas’s piece, on the relationship between past, present and future, as well as the existence of history and the changing seasons in a thoughtful one man show.

Opening at the Theatre Royal Bath earlier in the year and arriving at the Harold Pinter Theatre after a brief tour, Four Quartets is not quite a play but more than a dramatic reading, and, across 80 rather swift minutes, Fiennes extracts the many changes of tone and pace, as well as shifts in energy across Eliot’s work that give the show a dramatic purpose and propulsion. While there is no need to understand every phrase, there is a lovely clarity to the questions that the poet is posing about the nature and circularity of time that carries the audience through the knotty reflections as the traveller explores some kind of meaning for his existence in the present.

In doing so, he reaches for a multitude of examples from the physical and very tangible reality of nature in the rose garden where the poem begins, through to familiar references to particular London locations as he imagines the dark trying to creep through Camden, Hampstead and Clerkenwell, while Edgeware Road is mentioned later. The contrast between nature and the city is a frequent refrain, with these earthier matters balanced against grander explorations of man’s place in a wider philosophy of existence that looks to gods and creation as well as religious duty and understanding.

Drawing these strands into a coherent theatre piece is certainly difficult especially as each poem was constructed separately before and during the Second World War, where it would be tempting, perhaps even terribly obvious, to stage them in the guise of Eliot himself reading the works he created and drawing allusions with the changing political and military circumstances in Europe. Just as The Wasteland is associated with the disillusion after the First World War (although not in Eliot’s view), so too could Four Quartets be interpreted as a direct reaction to the shadow of death and destruction sweeping the continent at the time of writing in which he reinforces a certain patriotic notion of green and pleasant England.

Fiennes, who co-adapts with James Dacre, however chooses to make this dramatisation independent of the work’s original creative context and instead places it in a visual no-man’s land, dominated by two giant stone blocks that seem like tombstones which he rotates and moves to signify shifts between the four poems. The rest of the set designed by Hildegard Bechtler has just two chairs and a table which, in a show he has also directed, gives Fiennes places to move around, changing height and location while using the empty seat to indicate the mystical past or future.

Each segment of the production has its own individual style, opening with the gentler reflections of Burnt Norton written in 1936 which places the speaker in his garden musing on the circularity of existence, not only the cyclical seasons that affect the visual and aural cues of the landscape as well as the scents he detects, but also the merging of past, present and future into a single moment. Here Fiennes beautifully conjures the physicality of the garden, relishing Eliot’s colourful rendering of the warm autumn night, the bird the speaker chases and the dark brown pool at its centre.

There are tones of the Romantics in Burnt Norton, of a mind absorbing the beauty of nature but distracted, even abstracted, by the wider concerns of life and its meaning, a sense of old and new worlds colliding and how humanity can make sense of it. In delivery, Fiennes gives these debates a richness, pausing to let each thought settle before pursuing the next line, and while it can be difficult in a one-man show not to race through without the safety of other actors to ease the burden and pressure of audience expectation, here Fiennes is entirely at ease with the space, letting the words fill the auditorium and unafraid of the silence in between where Eliot leaves room for meaning to emerge.

The second poem, East Coker from 1939 opens with the famous phrase ‘in the beginning is my end’, a refrain that recurs throughout this chapter of the show, momentarily reflecting Ecclesiastes’ A Time for Everything, with several lines based on the same ‘there is a time to’ sentence structure in its consideration of the most appropriate time to live, for the wind to blow and for building homes. Again, Eliot draws associations between the grandness of the natural landscape being enveloped and the ‘underground train, in the tube, [that] stops too long between stations’ as passengers confront their mortality for a fraction of a second. And this is something which Fiennes and Dacre’s adaptation does well, emphasising the fragile structures of humanity against the elements, all facing a similar process of death and rebirth.

But Eliot here is also interested in darkness and as the lights slowly dim in the theatre, Fiennes employs an effectual full blackout to recite the passages in which the late November night consumes the living, referencing death and silence as the wealthy and influential go the same way as everyone else regardless of their status. It’s a haunting moment and not repeated, reinforcing the power of Eliot’s words to create strong impressions and images in the collective mind of the audience in what is a momentarily immersive effect.

The Dry Salvages is perhaps the most dramatic segment, focusing as it does on the allusion of man and the sea, the remoteness of the city-dweller from the vivid brown water of the river and the notion of allowing a life to drift until it is cast upon the rocks. There is much here for Fiennes to draw out in the performance from the onomatopoeic reading of ‘soundless wailing’ to the low ring of a naval bell in the distance, the creation of atmosphere around the third of the quartets is particularly enjoyable, gently guiding the audience through the changing imagery.

This segment also considers man’s desire to predict the future and the need to think ahead or look to the past rather than live in the present. Given the context of war at the end of 1940 when this poem was composed, Eliot is exploring notions of spiritualism and destiny that bring comfort and meaning to the powerless. Fiennes articulates this section particularly well as Eliot talks of conversing with spirits, horoscopes, omens and tea leaves as natural reactions in moments of distress, extending his overall thesis about the intersection of different time periods and the spaces between them that we fail to recognise or understand.

The finale of the quartet is entitled Little Gidding and is built around the soothing notion that ‘all will be well’ which recurs throughout. Written in 1942, Eliot is again drawn back to imagery of the English countryside and the garden, as he was with Burnt Norton, referencing burnt roses and ash which gives a balance and completeness to the Four Quartets as a performance as well as a poetry collective, underscoring once again Eliot’s emphasis on the cycles and destructive effect of time as humanity fights for survival.

This section also gives Fiennes his only chance to play a second character as it contains a story of two strangers meeting on the road, one huddled from the cold as the actor sinks into his jacket while the other is commanding like a god or powerful spirit urging transformation in the other. Their interchange, which is well dramatised here, sets-up the remainder of the poem exploring the compression or relativity of time, acquainting the lifecycle of a yew tree and a rose while noting that ‘history is a pattern / Of timeless moments.’ And just like that, it’s over

None of these separate poems are named in the piece and Fiennes never overtly indicates the change between them in what becomes a continual monologue. Instead, the rhymes and indeed the separate verses within them are punctuated by music and Tim Lutkin’s often spectacular changes of light, the turning of the stone tablets and the actor relocating around the stage. And while that may sound overly self-conscious, it flows effortlessly between Eliot’s thoughts – we may not fully understand or spend time investigating all of the complex imagery in the piece but the emotional range of it is reflected in both the staging and Fiennes’s changing delivery.

In fact, the actor delivers a quite mesmeric performance, drawing out the nuances of tone, emphasis and imagery with a crisp clarity. Fiennes is always at ease with complex language and linguistic structure which has made him such a great performer of Shakespeare and Ibsen, and here he takes a piece that ordinarily exists as a collection of words on the page and only comes alive in the imagination, and gives it an expressiveness that is almost like dance, helping the words move around the auditorium with a power and resonance that becomes quite beguiling.

Four Quartets is perhaps more an experience than a performance, a series of musings and philosophical wonderings that grip as often as they elude. But Fiennes and Dacre have made this more than an intellectual exercise, and while its intangibility can be frustrating, even puzzling, there is real feeling and purpose to the application of a dramatic construct that makes Eliot’s poetry come alive on stage.

Four Quartets is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 18 December with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 800 shows in that time. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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