Four Quartets – Review – York Theatre Royal

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By @Roger Crow, July 2021

Years ago, at a major Floridian theme park, there was an autograph shop. The place was filled with framed pictures of global stars with their names written on photos and name cards of said star. Except one that stuck out was Ralph Fiennes. The name card was spelled wrong, even if the photo was right. Given that the real Ralph Fiennes has been part of the bedrock of film and global* theatre for so long, I’m in a state of denial that he’ll turn up to York Theatre Royal at all.

*When I say global, I mean mostly London.

Maybe there was a typo on the invite, like that framed autograph. ‘Maybe it’s a Ralph Fiennes tribute act’, I think. After all, this is the guy who has been dazzling us on stage and screen since the early 1990s.

Many may obviously know him as the noseless one in the Harry Potter saga, but I like his lesser known performances, such as the slightly sleazy Lenny Nero in Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, the guy who sold clips of memories.

Fiennes’ gift for comedy is extraordinary, as he proved in Hail Caesar! and the sublime Grand Budapest Hotel, so with all of that baggage under his belt, when the real Ralph walks out on to the stage at York Theatre Royal, there is almost an audible gasp. Not least from me.

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“Simple genius”

Genuine stars have that ability to create a sudden vacuum as people inhale at the same time. And as he settles into what turns out to be ‘A magnetic piece of live theatre’, as one broadsheet rightly claimed, the audience also adjusts to having an icon on stage.

For once, the gushing press blurb is on the money. “Ralph Fiennes delivers an extraordinary tour de force in T S Eliot’s final masterpiece which offers four interwoven meditations on the nature of time, faith and the quest for spiritual enlightenment.”

I knew absolutely nothing about the text going in. Which is often the best way.

Mostly written during the Second World War, when the closure of the playhouses during the Blitz interrupted Eliot’s work in theatre, Four Quartets contains reflections upon surviving periods of national crisis.

And obviously with ‘you know what’ dominating the minds of millions over the past 18 months, there’s little chance this treat for regional theatre goers would have happened if Ralph had been free to travel the world for assorted projects.

Watching Fiennes tackle this Everest of text without missing a beat is a sight to behold. He’s framed throughout by two enormous vertical slabs of a set, which either he manipulates or they are done remotely. They are tombstones, monoliths, walls, whatever you want them to be, such is their simple genius. There’s also a couple of chairs and a table. Take a bow set and costume designer Hildegard Bechtler for the overall effect.

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“Melancholy study”

Ralph is in bare feet, which makes me wonder how thoroughly that stage must be swept just in case a stray object causes injury.

There’s also a lone moth orbiting the action, which is obviously not part of the drama, and yet strangely accentuates the lone actor’s solitude as he delivers Eliot’s words.

The atmosphere is genuinely electric, and though I might be struck down for saying so, I’m not a fan of the text. I rarely am when I first experience a drama. It’s only after that first viewing that a work gets under the skin.

Personally I would have preferred Fiennes to re-enact The Greatest Play in the History of the World, which I’d seen on the same stage a few weeks earlier. But this is Fiennes’ time. A star taking precedence over the material. He could have spent 75 minutes reciting the contents of a cereal packet and I would have been hooked.

There are a couple of wry smiles, and the odd intentional laugh to lighten the mood, but for the most part this is bleak subject matter. A melancholy study of life, death, and every syllable is perfectly measured. As you would expect.

It’s quite a thing for any actor to have the audience in the palm of their hand for more than an hour, but of course great thespians achieve that on stage. Not that we usually get a chance to see it in York, so this is a genuine treat for those who love great theatre, Ralph Fiennes or both.

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“White-hot intensity”

Kudos must also go to lighting designer Tim Lutkin, and sound designer Christopher Shutt for creating the mood throughout, especially a scene when our lone protagonist faces what looks like the gates of some vast inferno. It’s hugely cinematic.

I’ve no doubt that as the years roll by, and I learn more about Four Quartets, I’ll realise how much more there was to the piece than I realised. Man’s relationship with time, the universe, and the divine is such a huge subject matter, that it’s too much to take in during one sitting.

Or maybe I’ll just accept the show for what it is. A great actor sharing the white-hot intensity of a performance with an audience for a little over an hour. It’s a great honour, and the standing ovation is well justified. Fiennes thumps his heart briefly as thanks to the audience, and it’s one of those simple moments which lingers long after we’ve filed out of the theatre.

That shared experience is such a gift in these strange days that it stands head and shoulders above Eliot’s text and the humble star enacting it.

The man behind Lenny Nero gave the audience a memory clip we’ll never forget. What a gift.


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