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A theatrical first comes to a close in London on 18 December when the celebrated actor Ralph Fiennes, star of The Constant Gardener and The Reader, gives his last ‘performance’ of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets at the Harold Pinter Theatre, off Leicester Square.  This is the first time Eliot’s famous meditation on time has been staged, though his other great work, The Wasteland was performed on stage in 2010.

The Arab World has a long tradition of poetry and Arabic itself is a rich, poetic language.  Eliot’s work has been translated into Arabic over the years though the difficulties of translating poetry into Arabic are acknowledged by Adnan K Abdulla of the English department at the University of Sharjah in the UAE.  He wrote: “Translation of poetry into Arabic has to face difficulties posed by the long history of Arabic poetry itself, its resistance to translation, and the unique status of poetry in Arabic literature. Any translation of poetry into Arabic prose is doomed to failure because the Arab ear accepts only metrical compositions as poetry. Prose is antithetical to poetry.”

The staging of Four Quartets has been a considerable undertaking for the 58-year-old actor, not least because of the challenge of memorising almost 1,000 lines of verse.  However, Arab World observers will note that this is perhaps less of a challenge than memorising the Koran.  Interestingly, the austere stage set for Fiennes’ Four Quartets has a faint echo of the Kaaba in Mecca, the giant cube structure visited by thousands of Muslims every year.  In Fiennes’ dramatization the audience are faced with two concrete-like towers, like giant books, which Fiennes manoeuvres to mark each of the work’s four interlinked poems.

So far, so good – but arguably more could have been made of the stage.  If a poem is going to be staged, there has to be a visual element.  The staging was minimal for Four Quartets, the argument no doubt being that it is the words that matter.  But there were many moments when lines from the poems could have been illustrated on stage.  Still, the whole effect was mesmerising, especially during the moving closing lines

‘And all shall be well and

All manner of things shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.’

And the meaning?  That is best left to Eliot himself who said: “As for the meaning of the poem as a whole, it is not exhausted by any explanation, for the meaning is what the poem means to different sensitive readers.”

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