The actor is awe-inspiring in his one-man presentation of one of Eliot’s finest poems.
Now that London theatres are at last re-opening it was a personal treat for me to select to see Ralph Fiennes in his one-man stage presentation of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets. The opus, for me, is a hard work, and I knew it would be; frankly I went not for Eliot but to be a few feet from one of our finest actors and to hear and see him in what surely is that most genuine and naked of environments – on stage before a live audience where all actors and actresses must display their true worth and mettle.
The stage is sparsely set: a couple of chairs, a table, and two enormous monoliths – immediately reminiscent of that other great (and one could say equally enigmatic) fable of the passing of the ages of time and the consequences for humanity, Arthur C Clarke’s 2001 A Space Odyssey – and which Fiennes rotates from time to time during his performance. The actor himself appears barefoot, somewhat dishevelled, confused, aspiring to understand.
And what a voice. Perfect clarity of diction and projection, emotive, sometimes fearsome, wide range of dynamics, laughing, then almost in tears, then amusing again… the “distress of nations and perplexity, whether on the shores of Asia or the Edgware Road”. He jumps, dances, pushes against the stones of the monoliths. And what a memory. I was raised with one of our greatest concert pianists in the household, and am well used to recitals of Chopin, Schumann, Beethoven… performed uninterrupted for 70 or 80 minutes, where beauty, excitement, tragedy, tears and amazement abound, all from memory, with the body working magically to project. But I have never heard this represented so well by a voice, by one man in a solo performance, a brilliant tour de force of 75 minutes. This was the reason I went to the show. This was Mr Ralph Fiennes, a superb exponent of his art.
During the performance the person two seats away from me had kicked over her empty glass, people were shifting in their seats; it’s a hard opus, as I say. I can’t but help wonder how Mr Fiennes felt when he delivered the last line of Eliot’s epic work, and the packed house remained silent, unaware that the performance had concluded. For those two or three seconds, I felt the actor challenged us all, our ignorance, and I felt sad, for him, that we had let him down. Then someone clapped (a claque I wondered?), and the rest, including me, followed, humbled, ecstatic in our adulation of a superb performer at the height of his interpretative powers.
I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.