Beat The Devil/Four Quartets (Review)

Beat The Devil/Four Quartets (Review)

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It’s pretty simple to work out what actor Ralph Fiennes must have spent a lot of time doing during the lockdowns – learning reams of text in preparation for  brace of solo stage performances given in 2020 and 2021. And if you like this particular actor then you’re in for a bit of a treat currently as the fruits of these particular labours have both been filmed and are available for streaming on catch up services Now TV (Sky) and iPlayer (BBC)

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Beat The Devil is a piece written by David Hare and performed by Fiennes. It looks back at what happened during the first part of the pandemic to both the writer and the country as a whole. For a time, and just as the first lockdown was proclaimed, Hare himself had the virus and experienced a couple of weeks of hell as his creative muse deserted him, his body shut down and fresh symptoms appeared on an almost daily basis; prominent among these was the loss of his sense of taste. Or rather a radical alteration  of the same as everything came to taste of sewage – I’m not sure how Hare knows what sewage tastes of but we’ll let that pass. It’s a frank account which starkly reminds those of us that had nothing more than a mild dose of the virus just how potentially deadly it could be for some. This account suggests that the writer may have had a lucky escape.

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He praises both his wife and GP for getting him through it but reserves several levels of scorn for the incompetency and delayed decision making of the politicians who first looked the other way as the virus gathered force and then acted too late to save thousands of lives. He won’t grace them with the title of “mediocrities”, stating quite directly that they don’t measure up to even that damning status. Yes, it’s a polemic but then it wouldn’t be David Hare if it wasn’t. I’m not sure whether Fiennes directly shares Hare’s views but convinces as the writer’s alter ego. Inhabiting Hare’s own real workspace, Fiennes cuts a restless figure who intrigues and draws the viewer in as he searches for and finds links between personal trauma and the public debacle of government policy. I wonder what he would have made of Partygate and all the subsequent situations. Watching this I kept thinking that Johnson et al had better hope that Hare isn’t called to give evidence at Baroness Hallett’s Covid 19 public enquiry due to report … well, who knows when?

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Beat The Devil was originally staged at The Bridge Theatre; this filmed version is available on Now TV. The play was originally commissioned for the BBC who, much to Hare’s chagrin, inexplicably dropped the project as being of no interest to the public. However, they were able to latch onto another Fiennes project which also began life in the theatre. This is the actor’s masterly performance of T.S. Eliot’s poetic cycle Four Quartets. If possible these poems are even more dense than Eliot’s acknowledged masterpiece The Waste Land currently celebrating its centenary. They are a vast meditative panorama loosely based on the four basic elements (air, earth, fire and water) and which investigate grand themes such as time, music and humankind against a backdrop of various world religions.

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Fiennes’ elegantly crystal clear diction is a perfect fit for Eliot’s extensive and often obscure vocabulary. It’s an exhausting sequence and, if you’ll forgive the pun Fiennes is on fine form moving about the stage barefoot, dressed in drab brown often with rhythmic movement that helps elucidate the text – at least some of the time. And herein lies the difficulty. On the page you can pause and consider what Eliot is saying, reread dense passages, even consult a dictionary – teasing out meaning is what his poetry is all about. In performance the moment is here and then gone (even though on video you can pause and rewind at will) moving onto the next bit of seemingly inexplicable verbiage. Ultimately one of Eliot’s own lines here has resonances beyond the poetry itself: “We had the experience but missed the meaning.” Quite!

Beat The Devil is available on Now TV; click here

Four Quartets is available on BBC iPlayer; click here

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