Review | Four Quartets at the Barbican

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T. S. Eliot was famously wary about artistic interpretations of his poems. In a letter in 1947 to Dale E. Fern, he wrote that the idea of a ‘choreographic setting’ for the third part of Four Quartets ‘simply makes my stomach turn over’. Over a decade later, writing to the Master of Magdalene College in Cambridge, Eliot noted that he had ‘always been firm in three points’ with regard to the publication of his work. Firstly, he was against artist illustration of his poems; secondly, he did not want academics to print the poems with accompanying explanations; and thirdly, he did not want the poems to be set to music, unless they were originally intended as lyrics suitable for singing. The reason for this, Eliot clarified, is that he didn’t want ‘interpretation of the poem to be interposed between me and my readers’. Readers of his work, he stressed, should ‘get their interpretations from the words alone and from nothing else’. This attitude also explains the poet’s somewhat dry reading voice: misplaced emphasis, slippages, or tonally charged readings on Eliot’s behalf might impose his own interpretation of his work, rather than leaving it open to the listener to decipher.

Pam Tanowitz’s new stage setting of Four Quartets, first published 75 years ago, manages the almost impossible task, then, of providing an interpretation that places the words at the very centre of the performance. Rather than offering the sort of emotive explanation that Eliot feared, the production is pared-back, its moments of movement and stillness cutting to the quick of Eliot’s poem; the dancers’ moves are in sync with the words, rather than seeking to enhance them. Eliot’s long poem is one that teases out the implications of music and silence, and in this sense it is well-suited to dance: ‘Words move, music moves / Only in time’, he writes in ‘Burnt Norton’, the opening quartet, observing how ‘Words, after speech, reach / Into the silence’. The nine dancers of Tanowitz’s performance also reach into the silence, stretching limbs out into the pauses between Kathleen Chalfont’s rich and rhythmic reading of the poem. Occasionally, we can hear their feet shuffle, but somehow this only adds to the experience, the creaking echoing the poem’s preoccupation with what is ‘heard, half-heard’. The performance itself starts quietly, perhaps gesturing to the poem’s ‘unheard music’, while the dancers are initially half-seen, hidden behind a screen. When the screen comes up, and the Finnish composer Kaija Sariaho’s score for harp and strings begins, there is a sense of revelation. At later points in the performance, the whole stage opens up, so that we have glimpses of staging apparatus: the effect is of growing simplicity, a stripping-away of ornamental structures, in parallel with what Helen Gardner calls Eliot’s ‘desire to speak plainly’ in Four Quartets.

For ‘East Coker’, the second quartet, the stage brightens, becomes greener, in a nod towards the agricultural and seasonal concerns of this section. Many of the lines in ‘East Coker’ could in fact be read as directions for dancing – figures are pictured ‘Leaping through the flames’ and ‘Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes’ – and the dancers on stage lean back, make starfish jumps, turn sharply, run on the spot, hop, and twist their fingers. There is audience laughter at Eliot’s bathetic line ‘That was a way of putting it – not very satisfactory’, and a shift in attention as the poem becomes deliberately prosier. As Eliot noted in his 1942 essay ‘The Music of Poetry’, published in the same year as ‘Little Gidding’, ‘no poet can write a poem of amplitude unless he is a master of the prosaic’.

Later parts of the performance see energetic circlings in front of Brice Marden’s abstract paintings, while Kathleen Chalfont’s reading is at is most intense and incantatory for the sea prayers and ‘dark throat’ of ‘The Dry Salvages’. If at times the performance seems too contained, in line with the distaste expressed in ‘East Coker’ for ‘Undisciplined squads of emotion’, it feels entirely true to the ‘complete simplicity’ that ‘Little Gidding’ and Four Quartets as a whole aspires to. Tanowitz’s production is a marvellous achievement.

Words by Suzannah V. Evans.


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