Ralph Fiennes Is Making T.S. Eliot Poems Current and Accessible in One-Man Play

Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort) is bringing poetry to live audiences this year. However, his take on T.S. Eliot’s wartime poems in Four Quartets is far from a stuffy evening of recitals. Currently touring in British regional theaters before taking to the West End, Fiennes means to make his performance of the Nobel Prize-winning poet’s work accessible and relatable to modern audiences.

Fiennes revisited Eliot’s poems when the COVID-19 pandemic first began last year. When some more of his planned projects fell through this year, the idea was born to transition Four Quartets to the stage. A superb group of creatives happened to be free to join, including Olivier Award winners Hildegard Bechtler (designer) and Tim Lutkin (lighting) as well as Tony winner Christopher Shutt (sound). It was as if it was meant to be, Fiennes reflected:

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.

 

Ralph Fiennes is sitting on a chair barefoot against a dark set, speaking.

Fiennes began his “Four Quartets” tour in May at the Theatre Royal Bath.

 

Four Quartets, the book, is composed of four interconnected poems (Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding), which are meditations about time, being present, faith, the quest for spiritual enlightenment, and the act of surviving periods of existential and national crisis. Eliot wrote most of it during the Second World War when the closure of playhouses during the Blitz in London interrupted his own work in theater, much like that of Fiennes. We have been “trapped in our houses, we’re denied all these norms of social interaction, [and] assumptions about life and work and travel are all taken away” due to the ongoing pandemic, he points out. Therefore, both the content and the genesis of the source material are oddly relevant:

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.

Indeed, the actor and director’s intention has been to interpret Eliot’s literal voice in a way that is accessible to modern theatergoers.

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.

 

 

The play has been on tour across Britain since May. Its next and final regional stop is at York Theatre Royal (July 26–31) before Fiennes transfers it to the West End at the Harold Pinter Theatre for a month-long run (November 18–December 18). The actor, whose gentle biopic The Dig premiered just in time for the awards season earlier this year, has delighted in the journey.

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.

Find out more about tickets and upcoming dates in York and in London. If all goes well, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child will have reopened at the Palace Theatre by November too. Why not start planning your next big magical theater trip now?

 

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Dora Bodrogi

I am a writer, a critic, a researcher, a traveler, and a Ravenclaw through and through. My main fields of interest are representation, gender, and LGBTQ fiction, history, and censorship. Incorrigible doodler and theatre kid.

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