Review: The Four Quartets at York Theatre Royal

This is a difficult review to write. Poetry is meant to be heard, it is the spoken word which reaches into your mind meaning different things to different people. Yet it has been read in classrooms all over the world and often. I’m ashamed to admit, quite badly.

By Angie Millard

Feature photo by Matt Humphrey

T.S. Eliot wrote The Four Quartets in the years between 1935 and 1941. It is almost 1,000 lines long and, delivered by Ralph Fiennes as a performance, it is astounding.

I don’t wish to give my particular interpretation of The Four Quartets but there is joy at the heart of the poem and it ends with a supremely hopeful reflection on death:

‘We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time,’

The quartets begin with the poem: ‘Burnt Norton’: a house in Gloucestershire, it is redolent with echoes from the past and provokes Eliot to contemplate the nature of time.

‘Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future…’

The second section is called’ East Coker’ and we are presented with the more earthy and primeval. ‘The Dry Salvages’ is a group of rocks in Massachusetts, where we explore the power of the sea.

The last poem is ‘Little Gidding’ named after an archetypal English village where Eliot resolves the poetic struggle between the rose and the fire which signifies love and pain.

The four elements are evident and used metaphorically in each poem. Massive questions about the nature of time, life and death are confronted and discussed. Fiennes is barefoot on stage, sometimes slow and measured in delivery, occasionally loud and passionate, always compelling.

The set consists of huge granite-like blocks which he moves around. The lighting is used to immense effect as in the section of ‘East Coker’ when he says ‘Dark, dark, dark, they all go into the dark.’, all stage lights are killed and we hear the next section in absolute darkness. In ‘Little Gidding’ the back of the stage is lit like a huge furnace silhouetting Fiennes as he says:

‘We only live, only suspire

Consumed by either fire or fire’

The audience were stunned and uplifted; I had never imagined that the dry intellectual poetry could be so utterly theatrical. It was a truly unusual experience and can be seen at The Theatre Royal until Saturday and thereafter in the West end.

The Four Quartets was performed at York Theatre Royal on Monday 26 July 2021. It was performed and directed by Ralph Fiennes. The Set Designer was Hildegard Bechtler and Lighting Designer was Tim Lutkin.