Review: Four Quartets, Harold Pinter Theatre ★★★★☆

Four Quartets is a very personal project for Ralph Fiennes. As both actor and director, he has taken his production of T. S. Eliot’s connected poems about time, the divine and death from its initial run at Bath on a national tour before its arrival here at the Harold Pinter.

An evening of Eliot’s ruminations on time may not seem like a natural West End production – particularly as it follows the very-West End turn by Jennifer Saunders in Blithe Spirit here – but in Fiennes’ hands anything is possible.

Ralph Fiennes in Four Quartets. Photo: Matt Humphrey

Fiennes wanders on stage barefoot with the house lights still up. “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past,” he begins, drawing the audience in – with the house lights on we are aware of our own presence and of time itself passing. It is a simple but hugely effective.

Also effective is the staging by Hildegard Betchtler, whose two rotating stone monoliths tower over the simple stage, decked with just two chairs and a desk with a glass of water and a studio microphone.

On this stage, Fiennes inserts as much drama as the text allows – although this is a performance of a poem, the poem itself is not a natural performance piece. The audiobook version that Fiennes has recorded may perhaps have been seen as a more typical place to start, but that will miss Fiennes’ subtle but pitch perfect mannerisms that elevate the poetic text into other more.

Ralph Fiennes in Four Quartets. Photo: Matt Humphrey

And it really is pitch perfect. Fiennes seems to have complete control over every millimetre of his face, every inch of his body – each movement carefully considered and selected to convey the emotion of each line. He does not make a false move during the play’s 75 minute running time – an impressive staying power given the intense content. It is a production that demands the audience’s attention to every word – you cannot divert your attention, lest you get lost in Eliot’s text, so at 75 minutes it does not overstay it’s welcome.

Fiennes adds his own modern take to some of the Eliot’s lines, which may not please some of the Eliot faithful in the audience but a knowing nod to the ‘twittering world’ garners a knowing laugh from an audience who will no doubt leave the theatre tonight to tweet about their evening with Fiennes and Eliot.

Four Quartets is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 18 December.