‘My God, it’s so modern; my God, it’s all about now,’ says Ralph Fiennes as he performs T S Eliot’s Four Quartets in York

“Four Quartets deals with such endless essential perennial questions of time, the spirit, the soul, the journey of the soul in life – big, big ideas,” says Ralph Fiennes. Picture: Matt Humphreys

RALPH Fiennes’s week-long run of his world premiere of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets will mark the return to full-capacity audiences at York Theatre Royal from Monday.

Good news for those who had missed out on tickets when the most in-demand production of the reopening Love Season was first put on sale with social distancing in place. This week’s unlocking of Step 4 has freed up the sudden availability of seats aplenty.

Please note that under the still-cautious Theatre Royal’s Covid-safety practices: “We strongly recommend that you wear a face covering out of respect for fellow audience members,” the management advises.

Star of stage and screen Fiennes is directing and performing in the world premiere of T S Eliot’s final masterpiece in his York Theatre Royal debut as the zenith of the Love Season after premiering the Royal & Derngate, Northampton and Theatre Royal, Bath co-production in Bath from May 25 to June 5.

After this summer’s regional tour, he will transfer Four Quartets to the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, for 36 performances from November 18 to December 18.

Fiennes’s solo theatre adaptation features Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages and Little Giddings, published together in 1943 in a quartet of four interwoven, symphonic meditations that ranges across themes of time, nature and the elements, faith and the quest for spiritual enlightenment and war and mortality.

Mostly written during the Second World War, when the closure of London playhouses during the Blitz interrupted Eliot’s work in theatre, his epic poem cycle contains “some of the most exquisite and unforgettable reflections on surviving periods of national crisis”, apt for our pandemic times.

Here, Fiennes answers a series of questions on Four Quartets, verse, versatility and villains

Where did the idea for doing Four Quartets come from?

“I’ve known it since I was quite young – we had the TS Eliot recording – so it’s something that’s been floating in and out of my awareness over the years. In the first lockdown last year I gave myself little things to engage my mind and memory, and I thought I’d learn Four Quartets.

Ralph Fiennes in rehearsal for Four Quartets

“And then various things I thought I’d do the early part of this year went away – films and so on – and it sort of transitioned.

“Could it not be put in a context where it was not just recited in a suit or something, but given a kind of gently, appropriately judged theatrical context?”

What happened next?

I was daunted and excited in equal measure by what it might be, but with the help of my agent Simon Beresford, [creative producer] James Dacre got behind it and liked the idea.

“Then the Eliot estate got behind it and then a lot of very talented people in theatre production were available – like Hildegard Bechtler, Chris Shutt and Tim Lutkin, all brilliant in their field.

“I’m a great believer in the energies of things signalling whether they’re meant to happen or not, so it seemed that the cumulative gathering of people being available and wanting to be part of it sent me a sign that this had some viability.”

Why does Four Quartets appeal to you?

“I think it deals with such endless essential perennial questions of time, the spirit, the soul, the journey of the soul in life – big, big ideas. In the end you could say the takeaway is ‘Live in the present’ but Eliot goes deeply into how we’re trapped in notions of sequential time.

“But it’s a very human quest by a man who I think has been through the wringer internally himself – questioning his existence, very unhappy marriage, sense of identity – and then the war crystallising this sense of quest. So it’s endlessly mysterious, but I think there are also ways of speaking it that are conversational and accessible.”

“One of the key and most common responses was: ‘My God, it’s so modern; my God, it’s all about now’,” says Fiennes of Four Quartets’ resonance in lockdown times.

How much is Eliot’s voice in your head?

Not much at all. I said to the team on our first day of rehearsal back in February that I thought we should all listen to Eliot’s recording – the master’s voice – but we all came away with a very strong sense that this was not helpful for us if we want to make this accessible.

“It’s an old-school delivery with a certain kind of refined English intellectual speaking: it has its own kind of beauty and it’s wonderful to hear his voice, but the dynamic of its communicative ability more for younger people today I think is questionable, because it feels from another time. I want the poem to communicate to younger minds; I want it to be active.”

Four Quartets was written in the 1930s and 1940s, when the world was in crisis. How strong is the resonance with today?

Very strong. We’re trapped in our houses, we’re denied all these norms of social interaction, assumptions about life and work and travel are all taken away, and so I sense we’re left with: what are we, who am I, what is of value in my life, in our shared lives?

“It continues to be a crisis of what we don’t know, where this thing is going. And Eliot references a sense of where we have to embrace not knowing: ‘And what you do not know is the only thing you know’.

“Doing it for colleagues and friends in rehearsal, one of the key and most common responses was: ‘My God, it’s so modern; my God, it’s all about now’. And that was a very frequent response to it.”

What do you hope this interpretation will achieve?

“I want to enable the poem to be heard. Eliot has not been a focus in the theatre for a while. In his writing there is a religiosity, or questions of faith, which perhaps is unfashionable.

T S Eliot: Writer of Four Quartets

“I love Eliot’s poetry: I think it continues to communicate and I think often great writers suffer from the zeitgeist or the vogue of the moment and get relegated and forgotten about.

“I have a belief that the poem can work and I think it does chime with the big questions or the existential questions that I think we are asking about who we are – and I think that’s thrown into focus by the Covid crisis.”

Why have you decided to take the performance to regional theatres?

“That was part of the proposition. First of all I just said, ‘Can we do this?’. Then Simon and James said, ‘What about doing it as a regional tour, to offer it to regional theatres who may be excited to be able to open their theatres with this?’.

“And that appealed to me. It appealed to me to not do it in London, just purely to have the experience of going to different cities. That excited me because it’s different – I’ve not done it and I’m very aware that there are committed theatre audiences all over the country, so it was a bit of a no-brainer. I love the idea of being on the road: it’s rather romantic.”

Why have you chosen theatres such as York Theatre Royal?

“I was very protective of the sense of intimacy. In some theatres we’re not selling the very top circle because I wanted to keep the sense of intimacy and didn’t want to have to go into the level of projected voice, where there are certain nuances and delicacies that often get diluted.

“The poem has to feel like a conversation. I remember going on stage and doing a bit and saying, ‘Can you hear? Is it working?’. It was just putting my toe in the water as to how it felt in the theatre because it’s all very well walking the paths of Suffolk, where I am, doing it to the sheep, but the thing is, how will it land?

You have enjoyed huge success in both film and theatre. Do you have a preference?

“I love the very simple thing that you walk on to a space, either a monologue in this case, or with other actors, and you start something and you create immediately.

“I want to enable the poem to be heard,” says Fiennes. “Eliot has not been a focus in the theatre for a while”

“Even as I get older, the simple essential magic or possibility of that is endlessly fascinating – so simple and so profound at the same time.

“Film is full of huge potential thrills in terms of what the end experience can be for an audience but the process of film-making is not actor-friendly really. But then you might say, surely in front of a theatre audience you don’t have the chance to do it again?

“No, you don’t, but there is a dynamic of contact with an audience so you’re in a dialogue with the people receiving it. I suppose the short answer to the question is, I think I’m more at home in the process of theatre.”

Your career has covered everything from the Bard to Bond. Do those jobs feel different in your head, or is it all just acting?

“It is a sort of truism that good writing is always attractive, whether it’s classical or modern writing. You can just feel the crackle. I think I’ve got any actor’s hunger as to what’s a good part where there’s human complexity, there’s dramatic impact. We all like to be challenged and stretched.”

Is it true that villains are more fun to play?

“In a kind of basic way. They’re not fun if they haven’t got any complexity to them. Actually, one of the challenges of Voldemort is that he was mostly just sheer, distilled evil – the point of Voldemort [in the Harry Potter films] is that he doesn’t have a conscience – and that was quite a challenge because there was no doubt or inner contradiction.

“What puts the full stop on Richard III being a great part is his sense of regret or fear about what’s he’s done, and suddenly you have this other colour – doubt – and then he puts the lid on it. So that stuff is great. If there’s endless degrees of grey, I think that’s really human.”

Ralph Fiennes in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, York Theatre Royal, July 26 to 31, 8pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

“I think I’ve got any actor’s hunger as to what’s a good part where there’s human complexity, there’s dramatic impact,” says Fiennes

Back story

BORN in Ipswich on December 22 1962 , Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes has appeared in such films as Schindler’s List; The English Patient; The Grand Budapest Hotel; The Constant Gardner; Skyfall; In Bruges; The Dig and The Harry Potter series.

Winner of a Tony Award for playing Hamlet, Fiennes has performed many of theatre’s most iconic roles. London theatre credits include Shakespeare’s Anthony And Cleopatra (National Theatre) and Richard III (Almeida) and Ibsen’s The Master Builder (Old Vic).

York Theatre Royal’s full statement on its Covid-safety protocol after all legal restrictions were lifted on July 19 under Step 4 of the “Roadmap to Recovery”, restoring full-capacity audiences:

“We are proud to be See It Safely-approved by the Society Of London Theatre and UK Theatre, so you can feel confident and safe knowing that we are following the latest Government and performing arts guidelines.

“We’ve outlined more about what to expect from a visit to the theatre below:

* Multiple hand sanitation points around the building, including on entry.

* Increased cleaning regime before and after performances.

* Face coverings worn by all staff and volunteers working in public areas.

* Windows and doors open, whenever possible, to allow fresh air to circulate.

“We strongly recommend that you wear a face covering out of respect for fellow audience members and our companies when coming into the theatre.

“As the situation is constantly changing, we shall continue to adapt our approach in line with any new guidance and your feedback. 

Find out more by visiting the website at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk/show/four-quartets/

York Theatre Royal: Returning to full capacity from Monday