The Four Quartets, Harold Pinter Theatre, Saturday, 20th November 2021.
Mocking luvvieness is skewering a style of acting that hasn’t existed since Johnny Gielgud made his final exit. Luvvieness is about being over-emphatic and false, and it isn’t what you see from Juliet Stevenson or Andrew Scott or Lia Williams or Adrian Lester. It is what you see from Ralph Fiennes in his one-man presentation of Eliot’s Four Quartets, though. Poetry as pantomime. The poem says “the way up is the way down…” and Ralph drops to his knees, in case we don’t know which way “down” is. Everything is over-determined, actions are telegraphed, hard consonants are spat out, non-English words get an exaggerated ‘I’m talking Foreign’ treatment. Eliot’s significantly unusual words: hebetude, haruspicate… Fiennes gives them a huge emphasis. It doesn’t make them more comprehensible but it does make them more conspicuous, and that doesn’t help anyone come to terms with the poem.
In 1997, Fiona Shaw brought her performance of The Wasteland to Wilton’s Music Hall in Shadwell. The poem reflects on the wreckage of European culture after 4 years of total war, and the decaying splendour of the venue worked superbly to give her performance a context and a focus. Fiennes has brought his show to the Harold Pinter Theatre, which is one of the most flurpy, gilded-cherubtastic playhouses in London. He uses two chairs, a desk, a desklamp, a glass of whisky, a 1940’s style microphone, and two huge rotating set-pieces. They all of them are huge distractions, they all look like things for Ralph to fiddle with when he can’t think what to do next, they none of them help. Fiona Shaw against the leporous back wall of the Wilton’s stage gave a point of focus to understand the poem better, to make “These fragments I have shored against my ruins…” resonate in my mind from 1997 till now. Nothing that Fiennes brings to the party resonate at all. And just to bring home my personal least-favourite-thing – Tim Lutkin has put together a lighting design that is textured and subtle and full of shadow and contrast, deliberately making the stage a place of obscurity and illumination. There are big lighting effects, bright red backlight silhouetting Fiennes as he talks about the Christian martyrs burnt at the stake. All of that is commendable. Why would anyone want to smear an orange follow-spot on top of all that? Why go to all the trouble of texturing the stage picture and then do something so crass? Save the effort, restrict the lighting to a big fat follow-spot and let Ralph wander about in it, job done. Who gets the blame for this horror? Lutkin for a naff design, or the director (Fiennes) for saying: “Lovely effects Tim, but they want to see the actor’s face. Stick an orange blob into the mix…”?
Fiennes has recorded The Four Quartets as an audio-book, and it’s fine. It isn’t as good as Paul Scofield’s recording, but it’s perfectly fine. The words work, the repetitions work. There isn’t a little smirky moment when he goes: “You say I am repeating/Something I said before. I shall say it again…” and the audience snickers obediently.
Last point – Eliot was a great poet with a lot of lousy politics. He also wrote his poems 90 years ago, and some perceptions have changed since then. But he wrote: “Like the river with its cargo of dead negroes, cows and chicken coops,” and to spare our 21st century sensibilities, “dead negroes…” becomes “dead bodies…”. I understand why one might want that change made, but Eliot didn’t make it, Fiennes did. When the poem he’s reciting is aspiring to a state where: “every word is at home,/Taking its place to support the others…” that is a big old word to replace.
I don’t give stars unless I’m forced to, but if I did, I’d give this two of them. The stage picture is nice. Redundant, but nice. And Ralph Fiennes has remembered a lot of words, so well done for that. But it was a bad reading, a bad performance, a bad experience. Just bad.