BBC Radio 4, 18 January 2014
Although I have spent over three
decades studying, writing and teaching literature, this was the first time I had ever heard T. S. Eliot's magisterial work
initial impression is that the poem places considerable vocal demands on the actor, who not only has to try and bring out
its nuances, but has to introduce sufficient tonal variation to hold the listeners' attention. In Susan Roberts' production,
Jeremy Irons achieved this by reading the poem very close to the microphone; this did not seem like a public reading, but
rather an intimate piece, almost as if we were sitting next to him in a small room. Every breath, every pause, every
tonal change was clearly audible: we felt that we were sharing Irons' dramatic journey through the poem.
If the poem's principal theme
is that of time, and the progression of self, Eliot's use of repetition helped us evaluate the extent to which
(or even whether) the speaker had learned to adapt to changing conditions.
In terms of dramatic mood, Irons began
the first piece "Burnt Norton" in aggressively; this contrasted starkly with "East Coker" - possibly the darkest piece of
the entire sequence - where Irons made the biblical references explicit. "Little Gidding" assumed a more optimistic
tone, with its references to gardens and roses, moving into apocalyptic mode with a vision of doves and fires. The very
end of the poem seemed almost intimate: although full of contrary imagery, Irons' tone suggested reassurance - we could rely
on the speaker to help us make sense of what we were listening to. Even if we did not quite understand Eliot's argument,
it didn't matter: Four Quartets depends for its effect as much on sound as sense.
I applaud Radio 4 for giving its Saturday Play
slot to such a piece: hopefully they will repeat the experiment in the future.