REVIEW: Ralph Fiennes in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, York Theatre Royal, until Saturday, 8pm nightly. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
THIS was always the “event” moment of the reopening Love Season at York Theatre Royal.
So much so, there had even been 16 days of darkness since the closing night of A Splinter Of Ice: a dramatic pause of anticipation worthy of a Harold Pinter play, a pause lengthened all the more by the gap between Ralph Fiennes’s unannounced arrival on stage and his opening word from T S Eliot’s epic poem cycle. Like a pianist composing himself for the first note.
In the interim since July 10 had come the Government’s rubber-stamping of Step 4 and the return to full-capacity audiences, making Fiennes’s York debut at 58 even more of an event.
Mask-wearing was still advised, a softly-softly policy that was met largely with compliance, although temperature checks and the taking of names and phone numbers have gone.
Sitting close together in an almost full theatre for the first time since mid-March 2020 was a suck-it-see experience: any loud cough was met a tad nervously, and the Theatre Royal felt uncomfortably warm. Hopefully, that can be adjusted. Please.
Anyway, on with the one-man show, a London-bound touring tour de force presented in its world premiere by the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, and the Theatre Royal, Bath, directed and performed by the esteemed Mr Fiennes, whose solemn entry was as low key as his autumnal colours of brown jacket and grey shirt hanging loosely outside dark trousers.
His feet were bare, maybe still from that day’s yoga session, or maybe to ground himself, as if connecting with the earth below when the world around was in such a whirl.
He had the air of an intellectual lecturer, wrapped in intense thought, but needing to express himself, to communicate, hence the sporadic breaking of the fourth wall for direct address from the stage apron. Never dry, but conversational.
Fiennes did not merely declaim or recite. Instead, Four Quartets became poetry in often slow, mellifluous motion, a dramatic monologue with choreographed movement and lighting to suit the moment, the mood, the scene.
Fiennes had started with the lights still up and would bring them again sporadically, but at one point too, he plunged the stage into darkness, before a single light picked out a grey, almost ghostly countenance. Fire suddenly burned brightly, almost blindingly.
Every detail, every nuance, mattered, as with Eliot’s text, whether the placement of the two chairs and the table with a glass of water and a wartime studio microphone, used only once as if for addressing the nation.
The removal of the jacket and later putting it on again, wrapping it closely around his lean frame, signified the change of seasons, and all the while, Fiennes would break the moment, but not momentum, by moving two rotating slabs into different positions. It was an act of toil, but one to present new palettes, new shapes, new reliefs, as if in a painting, rather than the endless turmoil of Sisyphus being forced by Zeus to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity.
Fiennes’s voice, so familiar from the screen, is a thing of beauty in the flesh, weighted yet airy, his diction enunciated to the last ‘t’ that could blow out a candle. He made Eliot’s language dance, sing, sting, flow, spark and turn to embers in the series of symphonic meditations.
Conceived in lockdown, when Fiennes decided to set himself the task of learning Four Quartets, his performance could be termed a labour of love, but it is too transcendent to be burdened with a sense of labour.
Eliot’s final masterpiece, published in wartime 1943, brought together Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages and Little Giddings, each announced by Fiennes in an unbroken performance with resonance anew in our pandemic age of seeking survival amid a national (and international) crisis.
For all the turbulence and dissonance of war, Eliot’s tone is reflective, but never nostalgic, as he and in turn Fiennes addresses what Fiennes called “the perennial questions, the big, big ideas”: the passing of time and feeling trapped; the link between past, present and future; identity; existence; faith, the soul and spiritual yearning; the elements and the environment; the futility of war.
A chill wrapped itself around the Theatre Royal heat, as mortality, human frailty, the fire and the rose, signified the end. The rest was silence, Fiennes’s head bowed, as if to honour the passing of Eliot’s gilded, questing, mysterious words.