Ralph Fiennes directs and stars in a world premiere adaption of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets at York Theatre Royal.
From the Bard to Bond, Ralph Fiennes has an outstanding career on both stage and screen.
He’s known for works such as The Grand Budapest Hotel, Skyfall, Schindler’s List, and many of theatre’s most iconic roles including Richard III, Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, and a Tony award-winning turn in Hamlet.
And now he’s taking on T.S. Eliot’s epic poem at York Theatre Royal from Monday 26 to Saturday 31 July.
After the government’s announcement that the majority of restrictions can ease from 19 July, including social distancing, York Theatre Royal are opening up all seats in the auditorium for all performances of Four Quartets.
More tickets are now available for all performances and can be booked via the York Theatre Royal website.
Four Quartets is a set of four poems that mediate ‘on the nature of time, faith, and the quest for spiritual enlightenment’, that was mostly written during World War II.
Ralph Fiennes is also joined by an award-winning creative team including design by Hildegard Bechtler, lighting by Tim Lutkin, and sound by Christopher Shutt.
Writer and critic Michael Davies spoke with Ralph Fiennes to find out more about the show, the process, and why villains have more fun.
Q&A with Ralph Fiennes
Where did the idea for doing Four Quartets come from?
I’ve known it since I was quite young – we had the TS Eliot recording – so it’s something that’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 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 not just recited in a suit or something, but given a kind of gently, appropriately judged theatrical context?
What happened next?
I was daunted and excited in equal measure by what it might be, but with the help of my agent Simon Beresford, [creative 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 – like Hildegard Bechtler, Chris Shutt and Tim Lutkin, all brilliant in their field. 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 sent me a sign that this had some viability.
Why does Four Quartets appeal to you?
I think it deals with such endless 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. But 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.
Four Quartets was written in the 1930s and 40s, when the world was in crisis. How strong is the resonance with today?
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?
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 have you decided to take the performance to regional theatres?
That was part of the proposition. First of all I just said, “Can we do this?” Then Simon and James said, “What about doing it as a regional tour, to offer it to regional theatres who may be excited to be able to open their theatres with this?” And that appealed to me. 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 it’s different – I’ve not done it and I’m very aware that there are committed theatre audiences all over the country, so it was a bit of a no-brainer. I love the idea of being on the road: it’s rather romantic.
You’ve had huge success in both film and theatre. Do you have a preference?
I love the very simple thing that you walk on to a space, either a monologue in this case, or with other actors, and you start something and you create immediately. Even as I get older, the simple essential magic or possibility of that is endlessly fascinating – so simple and so profound at the same time. Film is full of huge potential thrills in terms of what the end experience can be for an audience but the process of film-making is not actor-friendly really. But then you might say, surely in front of a theatre audience you don’t have the chance to do it again? No you don’t, but there is a dynamic of contact with an audience so you’re in a dialogue with the people receiving it. I suppose the short answer to your question is, I think I’m more at home in the process of theatre.
Your career has covered everything from the Bard to Bond. Do those jobs feel different in your head, or is it all just acting?
It is a sort of truism that good writing is always attractive, whether it’s classical or modern writing. You can just feel the crackle. I think I’ve got any actor’s hunger as to what’s a good part where there’s human complexity, there’s dramatic impact. We all like to be challenged and stretched.
Is it true that villains are more fun?
In a kind of basic way. They’re not fun if they haven’t got any complexity to them. Actually one of the challenges of Voldemort is that he was mostly just sheer, distilled evil – the point of Voldemort is that he doesn’t have a conscience – and that was quite a challenge because there was no doubt or inner contradiction. What puts the full stop on Richard III being a great part is his sense of regret or fear about what’s he’s done, and suddenly you have this other colour – doubt – and then he puts the lid on it. So that stuff is great. If there’s endless degrees of grey, I think that’s really human.