Whatever possessed BAFTA award-winning actor Ralph Fiennes to think learning nearly 1,000 lines of poetry to be recited over 80 minutes on a stark stage was a good idea?

Whatever it was, it has culminated in a tour de force for the actor in his self-directed Four Quartets, the world premiere of which launched at the Oxford Playhouse this week – the highlight of its reopening season.

Fiennes, whose distinguished stage work is matched by performances in some of the greatest films of our time, including Schindler’s List, The English Patient, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Constant Gardner, Skyfall and the Harry Potter series, held the audience at the Oxford Playhouse spellbound as he delivered an un-hesitant and assured theatrical delivery of the work of four poems by T.S. Eliot.

The poems – Burnt Norton (1935), East Coker (1940), The Dry Salvages (1941) and Little Gidding (1942) – first published as a whole piece in 1943 deal with themes of time, life and death.

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They are performed, unadorned, on a simple stage among Hildegard Bechtler’s set of moveable, grey slabs. The set and the tonal contrasts from lighting designer Tim Lutkin combined to create atmosphere and provide contrast between the pieces.

The show begins with Fiennes, barefooted and dressed simply in shirt, trousers and cord jacket, seated and addressing the audience directly with the house lights up.

As they dim, he immerses himself in the performance, his delivery and physicality carrying the audience through rose gardens and country lanes to English villages and the high seas.

The production comes after 15 months of dark at the Beaumont Street and the Playhouse team are banking on it bringing in audiences to its socially distant auditorium.

The rules are followed closely – with staggered entry for different seats, no interval and masks worn throughout – when not sipping at your drink – to be ordered in advance.

Not familiar with the poems, I am sure I missed many nuances and allusions; some of the words went over my head too. There is even a glossary in the programme if you, like myself, are unfamiliar with terms such as “figlia del tuo figlio” (daughter of my son) and “haruspicate” (divination by reading the entrails).

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So rather than worry too much about what everything meant, I simply sat back and marvelled at a truly memorable performance by great of stage and screen.

Theatre co-director Louise Chantal is also clearly a fan, saying: “We couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate bringing live theatre back to audiences. Compelling, moving and symphonic, it’s a truly wonderful and memorable production.”

I couldn't put it better. It is truly magnificent.

  • Four Quartets runs until June 26.
  • Go to oxfordplayhouse.com