Review: Four Quartets (Touring)

Tuesday 27th July 2021 at York Theatre Royal.

T.S Eliot’s “Four Quartets” is an intensive rumination on the passage of time and all its complex workings. It sometimes feels like a sermon on life, or group therapy. At other times, it takes on the form of an authoritative academic lecture warning us about the perils of disengagement with the world around us. In places it’s like looking over the shoulder of someone writing down their innermost thoughts in their journal. It can feel sprawling and wildly tangential, but the roots run deep and in the hands of Ralph Fiennes, it’s delivered like a finely tuned speech for the ages.

Fiennes is a worthy proxy for Eliot and his wisdoms, approaching the material with an unfaltering sense of gravity and delivering Eliot’s words with mellifluous flair. He is a fine orator and he reminds us why poetry should, whenever possible, be experienced as an auditory art form. That said, this piece can sometimes leave a person feeling a little lost at sea with all its unrelenting lyricism and mysticism alongside minimal visual variety. Approaching the sheer weight and length of “Four Quartets” for the first time is quite an experience and I wish I’d taken the time to sit with Eliot’s words in advance rather than going into the auditorium with no prior knowledge of the work.

There’s no denying the resonance and sheer force behind such a work, but the complexities and contradictions it entertains invites greater pause for absorbing and reflecting than a live performance allows for. Fiennes, as both actor and director, clearly communicates the ebbs and flows, the passions and the reveries along the way, and his melodious handling of the text certainly brings it to life beautifully. But his mastery of the work does inevitably lead to that feeling of swift propulsion through open water; he’s a verse ahead leaving behind fantastic furrows while I’m over here treading water with something which accosted my ear from a few moments ago. My advice, therefore, would be to visit the source material in advance to allow Fiennes’ performance to be fully appreciated as it should be.

“Four Quartets” concerns itself with exploring what is gained and lost throughout our time amongst the living and the dead. It urges us to look beyond the surface and offers sobering truths and messages of hope side by side. If the past year and beyond has left you feeling more philosophical than usual, you might like to join Fiennes and Eliot on this lyrical journey…

“Four Quartets” plays York Theatre Royal until Saturday, July 31st 2021 and you can find tickets here.

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