Theatre Review: Four Quartets

Words by Melissa Blease

Burnt Norton, 1935: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” When TS Eliot wrote those words, the world around him was on the cusp of dramatic change. World War II was looming and he feared for his health; if ever there was a time for a writer who is arguably one of the 20th century’s most prominent poets to get jiggy with the quest for the meaning of life, it was now. 

Few of us can say that the challenges thrown at us during these past 15 months or so inspired us to write a beautifully-written philosophical treatise worthy of publication. But we can at least, perhaps, empathise with the conditions that influenced a book (originally published independently over a six-year period from 1936-1942 before being produced in its entirety in 1943) that many attest to be Eliot’s greatest work. 

The Four Quartets could not be described as an easy read. Each quartet is named after a location that had specific personal meaning to Eliot: Burnt Norton, a house in the Cotswolds; the Somerset village of East Coker; a group of rocks in Massachusetts called the Dry Salvages; and Little Gidding, a historic church in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, and each is loosely categorised by the four elemental forces. The interlinked sections work in harmony to raise some Very Big Themes that explore how we interpret the past, the present and the future according to (or disparate from, or subconsciously of, etc) science, spirituality, time, nature, tradition, environment, experience, love… and our own, personal interpretation of, I suppose, God. 

References to the Bhagavad-Gita, Dante, Julian of Norwich and St. John of the Cross support and, in turn, challenge Eliot’s personal stance as he carries us along on the soliloquy – see what I mean about it not being an easy read? However…

This brand-new stage adaptation of Eliot’s magnum opus – a Theatre Royal Bath and Royal & Derngate co-production, directed by and starring, in a solo performance, stage and screen superstar Ralph Fiennes – offers a subtle shockwave to the senses. Having only ever ‘experienced’ The Four Quartets on the page, watching and listening to Fiennes make so much sense of words that, for me at least, often left me shivering in a cold, perplexed wilderness was a fascinating, exciting, uplifting experience. 

Two huge, imposing monoliths, one table, two chairs… and one actor, rocking the smart-casual/barefoot vibe. The monoliths shift occasionally, spinning easily on their axis (occasionally with a little help from Fiennes) to allow clever lighting to suggest the passing of time, either day-to-day or realm-to-realm. Fiennes himself, however, doesn’t shift much – and he doesn’t need to; Eliot’s words do the shifting for him, and us. But were it not for Fiennes compelling, elegant intensity, it’s unlikely that those words would hold us rapt in some kind of spellbound netherworld as we watch and listen, and listen, and watch. 

Euphoric or jaded; pessimistic or uplifted; from sonorous Anglican vicar in the pulpit to farmhand walking down a country lane, pressing himself against the hedge to avoid a passing car; from a whisper to a roar; from comfortable peace to discomfiting anger; all hand in hand, in turn, in pace. We feel as though it is Fiennes who is thinking aloud, not Eliot. We are drawn into his world, far removed from the world of the lofty academic. He engages us, the often house-lit audience, rather than ostracising us by taking the stance of elevated actor. To stay on track with him for over 80 minutes of seamless text (even the artful silences require contemplative attention) is a joy, not a challenge; Fiennes has created an outstanding, uniquely beautiful live theatre experience that resonates deeply long after he leaves the stage. 

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice,” Eliot wrote, in Little Gidding. At the start of last year, we had no idea how our words, our language and our lives, would be changed inalterably, forever. If I’d have had Fiennes interpretation of Eliot’s philosophy to draw on for inspiration, even those difficult, traumatic times might have seemed beautiful.

The Four Quartets, Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 5 June, then touring to Oxford, Southampton and Malvern