Harold Pinter Theatre, London – until 18 December 2021
This is wonderful. Sometimes a simple short performance can shake, rouse, even change you.
So step away, I beg you, from the mundane rush of earning and spending, leave the gaudy Christmas streets and the scrolling, nagging screens. Sit quiet for 75 minutes while a tall, high-browed, slightly haggard man reflects on time, eternity, mortality. Feel with him the “still centre of the turning world”, the piercing wonder of those moments when suddenly something immense fills you, then slips away, uncatchable.
TS Eliot wrote these four long poems in the 30s and 40s: they are not easy, but their music and images have great power. Ralph Fiennes spent the two long lockdowns learning them by heart: he had recorded them before but wanted to get closer to Eliot’s religious and philosophical vision. It feels, in this performance, that he did: reaching out (though no human ever quite grasps it) for the meaning of those moments of eternity. They might come in a silent rose-garden, beside a crashing sea, in distant voices of children, or fire-watching by night in the Blitz (as Eliot himself did).
Fiennes learned the poems in two sessions – pausing between lockdowns to perform David Hare’s grumpy monologue Beat the Devil (which is about how Hare caught Covid and it was all somehow Boris Johnson’s fault). As he did, it came to him while the lockdowns made time seem to squeeze or stretch for everyone, and mortality brushed closer, that the four might be performed physically. That somehow it might serve us all.
He toured it first, exhaustively, without the high, high prices of the West End. The idea of personal performance, directed by himself though without vanity I think, was genius: because we are carried along by his physical presence and his moves – sometimes dramatic, sometimes almost playful. It is set on a simple stage with great revolving grey walls: dark spaces open and close as he wanders between them, sometimes pushing one to create a different space and perspective. The meditation moves from exaltation to despair, even amusement. Eliot is sometimes lyrically beautiful, often learned, but also suddenly stops to consider his own baffled inability to express what he glimpses. Fiennes makes good use of this, sometimes seeming to appeal to us, sometimes alone deep in meditation. That long tour of this extraordinary show for months may have given it still more depth. It is worth drowning in.
★★★★★ @lib_thinks begs you to stop, sit quiet for 75 minutes & listen to #RalphFiennes ‘reaching out for the meaning of those moments of eternity’ while reading TS Eliot in #FourQuartets. At @HPinterTheatre til 18 Dec. #theatrereviews #WestEnd