Ralph Feinnes and ‘Four Quartets’

July 30, 2021

On Wednesday I went to the theatre in York, to see Ralph Fiennes present his version of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

I had wondered how the poems would work on the stage. The first of them after all, contains much material that had been cut from Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral as being essentially undramatic. The poems are an extended meditation on Time. Eliot’s own reading of them is only intermittently dramatic.

Well, the poems do work in Fiennes’s version, and triumphantly. He does not just read the poems, and does not exactly perform them. He seems to be a man living them. A single figure, barefoot, in a bare prison-like space, he is forcing himself to think through complexities at the edge of what humans might understand. Often anguished and vulnerable, he is engaged in the ‘intolerable wrestle/ With words and meanings’, trying to explain to himself the difficult truths that he glimpses, constantly pushing himself to explore further. The danger with these poems is that they could begin to sound preachy (And Eliot had a fondness for preaching, as in the choruses from The Rock ).

Looking back on it, one admires the technical skill that Fiennes applies to the task, with variations of pace and mood, finding moments of humour and moments of desolation, with movements that never seem imposed as decoration, but always compelled by the poems – even the clod-hopping dance with which he enacts the rural rites of East Coker:

Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth.

While it’s happening, though, you don’t analyse the technique. You listen, and you live through the poems with him.

At times, Fiennes seemed a character out of Beckett, whose ‘No matter. Try again . Fail again. Fail better’ is prefigured by Eliot’s ‘and every attempt is a new start, and a different kind of failure.’ But Beckett never lets his characters work through towards real insights; Eliot believes that humans can at least glimse intimations of truths worth knowing.

Other performances of the poems would be possible. (In The Dry Salvages, for example, finding more of the wonder as well as the horror of the ocean.) What I liked about Fiennes’s account of them, though, was that he faced the poems head on, and gave no easy answers at all. The moments of enlightenment or ecstasy had to be earned, and were few. At the end he had come to insight (‘And the fire and the rose are one’) but the moment is indeed momentary. After saying the words, his head lowers again into the position in which he began the evening. He is a man still puzzling, still wondering, in a world with no pat solutions.

Then a long pause before we burst into huge applause for such an achievement. Oh what joy it is to be back in a crowded theatre.

2 Responses to “Ralph Feinnes and ‘Four Quartets’”

  1. Liza Williams Says:

    A wonderful review and rumination, George!

  2. joe_crocker Says:

    Yes it was a great evening and a gripping performance by Fiennes. I particularly took to those sections where it seemed he was standing aside from the meat of the poem and confiding to the audience on how it was going. These sections are integral to the Eliot’s piece but it had never occurred to me that they could be read that way. In the past when I have visited the quartets I tend to read only short sections before getting distracted by the details and the permutation of possible meanings. It was good to hear it read coherently at length.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: