The narrator of a poem can be elusive, unobtrusive, not really considered behind the material of what he is saying. He can be nonphysical – a voice in our head. Drop the same words into the visible, corporeal mouth of an actor, and the narrator is forcibly animated – pinned down. Ralph Fiennes’s new production, in which he is the only actor, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets the only script, and a grey backdrop with some unremarkable furniture the only context, enacts this transition from voice-in-our-head to personhood, and it is up to the audience to consider who, when, and where this suddenly-embodied poetic voice is coming from. We know the origin of the words we’re hearing, but what on earth are we watching?

Our narrator’s tone of voice sways between the revelatory and the didactic, the divine and the desperate, so that our first job is to work out whether we are watching a man or a god. Through his interrogations of faith, the possibility of him being a god seems to fade, but maybe we could see him in the role of bard – of poet, used by gods as a megaphone. But in “the world of perpetual solitude” this narrator describes for himself, there is no room for him to be defined as relative to other beings – in fact throughout the production he is defined absolutely by his solitude. We watch Fiennes stand alone with his hand on the shoulder of an empty chair talking about “union” and “communion”, and we cannot doubt that we are watching a performance of separateness. 

This production is profoundly interested in time – not only through Eliot’s wartime perspective and central exploration of the interface between past, present, and future, but also through the performance’s rhythmic technology. Fiennes’s command of Eliot’s metre is inseparable from the new elements of dance and song. If the narrator only sometimes feels human, then dance is how he very visually humanises himself – he seems at his most human, and importantly at his most clearly alone, when he is dancing a partnerless half-a-waltz, or a tenth or twelfth of a circular court dance.

In this vacuum of human relativity, perhaps even the narrator himself does not know who he is. He does, however, seem to know where he is in a way that the audience does not – he points to yew trees and inscriptions and rivers and mice where we see only the grey floor and the huge, grey, occasionally rotating concrete-esque slabs which form the background. He might exist, then, on a slightly different plane than that of his audience. When he recalls seeing “The eyes of a familiar compound ghost/Both intimate and unidentifiable”, we hear our experience of watching him echoed. 

So, what are we watching? We are watching Fiennes the inspired bard, Fiennes the lonely and the desperate, Fiennes the “compound ghost”. Maybe the voice we hear is not quite so embodied as we first thought. Maybe the narrator gives us a clue to his whereabouts and his nature when he says:

            “Footfalls echo in the memory

            Down the passage which we did not take

            Towards the door we never opened

            Into the rose garden. My words echo

            Thus, in your mind.”

Maybe he does not grow far beyond the poetic voice-in-our-head. In this intricate production, the ‘maybe’ feels like the whole point.

Image Credit: sylvar via Flickr, (CC BY 2.0).

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