Ralph Fiennes on why he's bringing T S Eliot’s epic Four Quartets to the stage

Ralph Fiennes is as comfortable with Shakespeare and Ibsen as he is starring in movie blockbusters such as James Bond or Harry Potter.

Ralph Fiennes directs and stars in a stage verion of T S Eliot’s epic poem cycle Four Quartets.
Ralph Fiennes directs and stars in a stage verion of T S Eliot’s epic poem cycle Four Quartets.

Now he’s taking his solo show of T S Eliot’s epic poem cycle Four Quartets, which he also directs, on tour including a stop at York Theatre Royal this month.

Where did the idea for doing Four Quartets come from?

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RF: I’ve known it since I was quite young – we had the TS Eliot recording – so it’s been floating in and out of my awareness over the years. In the first lockdown last year I gave myself little things to engage my mind and memory, and I thought I’d learn Four Quartets. And then various things I thought I’d do in the early part of this year went away – films and so on – and it sort of transitioned. Could it not be put in a context where it was given a kind of gently, appropriately judged theatrical context?

What happened next?

RF: I was daunted and excited in equal measure by what it might be, but with the help of my agent Simon Beresford, producer James Dacre got behind it and liked the idea. Then the Eliot estate got behind it and then a lot of very talented people in theatre production were available. I’m a great believer in the energies of things signalling whether they’re meant to happen or not, so it seemed that the cumulative gathering of people being available and wanting to be part of it was a sign that this had some viability.

Why does Four Quartets appeal to you?

RF: I think it deals with such essential perennial questions of time, the spirit, the soul, the journey of the soul in life – big, big ideas. In the end you could say the takeaway is “Live in the present” but he goes deeply into how we’re trapped in notions of sequential time. It’s a very human quest by a man who I think has been through the wringer internally himself – questioning his existence, very unhappy marriage, sense of identity – and then the war crystallising this sense of quest. So it’s endlessly mysterious, but I think there are also ways of speaking it that are conversational and accessible.

How much is Eliot’s voice in your head?

RF: Not much at all. I said to the team on our first day of rehearsal back in February that I thought we should all listen to Eliot’s recording – the master’s voice – but we all came away with a very strong sense that this was not helpful for us if we want to make this accessible. It’s an old-school delivery with a certain kind of refined English intellectual speaking: it has its own kind of beauty and it’s wonderful to hear his voice but the dynamic of its communicative ability more for younger people today I think is questionable, because it feels from another time. I want the poem to communicate to younger minds; I want it to be active.

Four Quartets was written in the 1930s and 40s, when the world was in crisis. How strong is the resonance with today?

RF: Very strong. We’re trapped in our houses, we’re denied all these norms of social interaction, assumptions about life and work and travel are all taken away, and so I sense we’re left with: what are we, who am I, what is of value in my life, in our shared lives? It continues to be a crisis of what we don’t know, where this thing is going. And Eliot references a sense of where we have to embrace not knowing: “And what you do not know is the only thing you know.” Doing it for colleagues and friends in rehearsal, one of the key and most common responses was: “My God, it’s so modern – my God, it’s all about now.” And that was a very frequent response to it.

What do you hope this interpretation will achieve?

RF: I want to enable the poem to be heard. Eliot has not been a focus in the theatre for a while. In his writing there is a religiosity, or questions of faith, which perhaps is unfashionable. I love Eliot’s poetry: I think it continues to communicate and I think often great writers suffer from the zeitgeist or the vogue of the moment and get relegated and forgotten about. I have a belief that the poem can work and I think it does chime with the big questions or the existential questions that I think we are asking about who we are – and I think that’s thrown into focus by the Covid crisis.

Why did you decide to take the show to regional theatres?

RF: It appealed to me to not do it in London, just purely to have the experience of going to different cities. That excited me because I’ve not done it and I’m very aware that there are committed theatre audiences all over the country. I love the idea of being on the road: it’s rather romantic.

Four Quartets is at York Theatre Royal, July 26-31. For details and to book visit yorktheatreroyal.co.uk