BWhen TS Eliot wrote his last great poem, he turned to dramaturgy in the hope of reaching a wider audience (Burnt Norton’s opening lines, the first of the quartet, are remnants of Murder in the Cathedral). So Ralph Fiennes and James dacreThe adaptation of these interconnected poems contains the spirit of Eliot’s endeavor and has an alluring star to boot, with Fiennes interpreting them as a monologue.
But the Theater Royal Bath and Royal & Derngate co-production, Northampton, is a high-risk venture anyway. As meditations on time, faith and meaning, the poems are full of philosophical puzzles, paradoxes, repetitions and opaque references to other texts (The Divine Comedy, the Mahabharata, Revelations of Divine Love). Sometimes they sound like a series of mystical awakenings or even impenetrable chatter, and seem more suited to the audio form for their abstractions: TS Eliot made a recording (cropped, cerebral, wood) as well as John Gielgud (cuddly, transporter) .
Fiennes, who has also recorded an audio version and directs this show, brings every last ounce of drama out of poetry. Barefoot and casually dressed, he at first seems puzzled and childish, sitting cross-legged, his character stripped of all certainty.
There are moments that only reinforce how abstruse poetry sounds to the ear: the paradoxes go crazy, the sermon tone and the introspective and arcane interrogation of words. But the fog dissipates when Fiennes animates scenes with such multi-voiced magnificence that it keeps us engrossed and the language becomes clear and powerful as it physically depicts the lines.
At his best, Fiennes is intimate and forthright, approaching the top of the stage until his toes grasp its edges and infusing lines with such expression that they appear freshly polished. It brings an open theatricality to the production and some passages sound close to Shakespeare’s soliloquy.
It talks about beginnings and endings, life and death, and the lines contain Eliot’s original trauma: three of the four poems were written during WWII while he was working as a fire watchman, watching London bombed from the rooftops, but they endure too fresher echoes of the pandemic, and the struggle to find meaning in its aftermath. “We had the experience, but we lost the meaning,” he says, and “time does not heal.”
At his wittiest moment, he finds comedy in Eliot’s irony and manages to make us laugh. “You say that I am repeating something that I have said before. I’ll say it again, ”he says, lifting his chin and almost winking.
There is a sensational moment in East Coker, written in the middle of the bombing when the theaters were forced to close: the stage lights suddenly went out and we sat in the dark, listening to Fiennes words. Moments of such illuminations feel like fireworks, it’s worth the wait, although we want more.
Eliot said it was not necessary to understand poetry to enjoy it, but that it is sometimes frustrating to be left out of the text, which becomes entangled in itself despite Fiennes’ deeply undermined efforts.
What we lose in meaning, we often gain in atmosphere and effect. At the beginning of each poem, Fiennes manipulates Hildegard Bechtler’s ensemble, which consists of two revolving walls. Fiennes turns them at different angles and at the same time they look clean and minimalist, a nod to Eliot’s modernism, and they resemble the ancient gnomic slabs of Stonehenge when Fiennes speaks of “old stones that cannot be deciphered”.
Lighting by Tim Lutkin and sound design by Christopher Shutt also create subtle and well-crafted effects, from the sound of waves crashing at the beginning of The Dry Salvages (inspired by the rocks off the Massachusetts coast) to the sound of bombardment. in East Coker. .
Eliot hoped to bring serious concerns to the stage in his plays. This bold production does just that and has a boldness that should be welcomed as a marker of post-pandemic theater. Unapologetic complex, it makes no concessions to the viewer, but instead asks us to think, engage, focus, and it is well worth scratching our heads.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism