REVIEW: Ralph Fiennes in T S Eliot’s Four Quartets at York Theatre Royal ****

Ralph Fiennes in his world premiere: “He did not merely declaim or recite. Instead, Four Quartets became poetry in often slow, mellifluous motion”

REVIEW: Ralph Fiennes in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, York Theatre Royal, until Saturday, 8pm nightly. Box office: 01904 623568 or

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.

Ralph Fiennes in Four Quartets: “His feet were bare, maybe to ground himself, as if connecting with the earth below when the world around was in such a whirl”

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.

Ralph Fiennes: “Made Eliot’s language dance, sing, sting, ebb and flow, spark and turn to embers”

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.

‘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

“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

York Theatre Royal: Returning to full capacity from Monday

REVIEW: Is resistance futile in Alone In Berlin at York Theatre Royal?

Denis Conway’s Otto Quangel and Jay Taylor’s SS Officer Prall in Alone In Berlin

Review: Alone In Berlin, York Theatre Royal/Royal & Derngate Northampton, at York Theatre Royal, until March 21. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

IT is rare to have a perspective on the Second World War from within Germany itself, presented on stage or screen.

What’s more, Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret was a Broadway musical rooted in Anglo-American Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical 1945 novel The Berlin Stories, set in Weimar Republic Berlin in 1931 with the Nazi Party on the rise. There could be no more cynical voice than that of the nightclub Emcee; entertainment at any price.

This year, New Zealander Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, a satirical account of the last year of World War Two, as seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old Hitler Youth enthusiast in a German town, garlanded nominations aplenty in the Hollywood awards season but opprobrium in equal measure. How did it end? With the boy and a newly free Jewish girl dancing to David Bowie’s Heroes, sung in Deutsche.

Joseph Marcell’s Inspector Escherich, Clive Mendus’s Benno Kluge and Jessica Walker’s Golden Elsie in Alone In Berlin

Alone In Berlin is a different beast altogether, still with songs (more of which later), but far removed from the powder and paint, mirage and murk of Weimar cabaret or a small-town boy’s loss of innocence. The source novel, based on a true story, was written by a German, the maverick Hans Fallada, responsible for Little Man, What Now? too.

Also known aptly as Every Man Dies Alone, it was published in 1947 – the year Fallada died of a morphine overdose – but not in English until 2009.

Since then, there has been Vincent Perez’s 2016 film with Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson and now this York Theatre Royal and Royal & Derngate Northampton co-production, translated and adapted by playwright and political satirist Alistair Beaton and directed by James Dacre, the Northampton theatre’s artistic director.

We watch it through the 2020 filter of grim, vulnerable times, in a year of floods, storms, immigration intolerance, Brexit’s cold shoulder, myopic political leaders, and now the creeping spread of Coronavirus. “This is war,” an exhausted Italian doctor said yesterday.

Resistance movement: Charlotte Emmerson’s Anna and Denis Conway’s Otto Quangel in Alone In Berlin

On the one hand, there is heightened awareness of the need for collective responsibility, but, on the other, a fear that other factors may over-power it, and where does that leave individual action as we wash our hands ever more feverishly? We are indeed, as everyone is in Fallada’s book, very much alone, and seemingly not in control of our destiny.

Such a feeling prevails in Alone In Berlin, where the central question is whether an individual can make a difference through courageous acts of protest when standing up against the drowning tide of Nazism.

Hard-working carpenter Otto Quangel (Denis Conway) and worn housewife spouse Anna (Charlotte Emmerson) have just learnt that their only son, Marcus, has died in action, honourably serving the fatherland, the letter says, but they see no honour in it. Nor does his fiancée Trudi (Abiola Ogunbiyi), who joins the Resistance movement, although the subsequent arc of her story shows how ultimately alone everyone is under duress.

Yes, they had voted for Hitler – more precisely Otto told Anna which way to vote, she says – with Hitler’s promise of jobs to end the Depression, but they had since grown disillusioned. Their boorish, bragging bully of a neighbour Borkhausen (Julius D’Silva), feels empowered to persecute the Jewish woman next door; he and petty criminal Benno Kluge (Clive Mendus) are exploiting the vulture opportunities of Nazism’s tyrannical grip.

Jessica Walker’s Golden Elsie, centre, with Charlotte Emmerson’s Anna and Denis Conway’s Otto Quangel in the shadows

What would you do in such testing circumstances? Keep your head down? Keep making coffins as carpenter Otto now is? Or start a campaign of civil disobedience, as Otto decides he must, no matter how small the defiant act, prompting him and then Anna to write to write messages on postcards he stealthily distributes across Berlin, calling on fellow Germans to resist?

Most fall into the hands of the authorities, represented in Fallada’s suffocating story by Gestapo officer Inspector Escherich (Joseph Marcell), a veteran policeman, adapting to do what he must do to survive, and his superior, SS Officer Prall (Jay Taylor), ambitious, merciless, the embodiment of all the very worst Nazi stereotypes.

Once the trail leads to Otto – spoiler alert – the most telling scene has Otto confronting Escherich’s expediency. “You don’t believe in anything,” he scolds him. That shocks Escherich to the core, and in turn it challenges us too, to cling to our beliefs, to cling to hope for the better path, to defy, to resist, if necessary, and to go it alone as the starting point, but with conviction that others will follow.

Dacre’s meticulous, methodical production is one of very high production values, and devastating performances by Conway, Emmerson and Marcell in particular, but it is not wholly successful.

Omnipresent angelic statue: Jessica Walker’s Golden Elsie

Beaton’s script sometimes sails close to the prosaic, and Jessica Walker’s omnipresent angelic statue Golden Elsie, matching the black and white of Jonathan Fensom’s stark set and Nina Dunn’s video designs, will be a divisive figure for audiences.

Essentially a one-woman Greek chorus, she is more reporter than commentator, and while she may echo Weimar cabaret in style, Orlando Gough has given her dissonant, flatlining operatic songs, always eluding a tune and relentless as toothache. This is probably deliberate, but the sheer number of songs is a drag on the play’s momentum.

Jason Lutes’s illustrations from his graphic novel Berlin are used brilliantly, Charles Balfour’s lighting is in turn dazzling, oppressively dark and intimidating; Donato Wharton’s sound design is exemplary.

Ultimately, Alone In Berlin, will have an impact beyond those fault lines in its telling. It will make you think, reflect, whether alone, or better still, together in the bar afterwards. Hopefully, too, it will make you want to make a difference, to push back against the crush, to be the first flutter of the butterfly’s wing.

Charles Hutchinson