It’s the most phenomenal thing: The only time I feel nostalgic for England, demi-paradise of my birth–”This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, / This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars / This other Eden,” and all that–is when I see Shakespeare done well.
The Queen of England herself could march down Fifth Avenue accompanied by the massed bands of the Grenadier Guards, and it would be just another regal inconvenience. But give me Shakespeare that works as thrillingly as the Ralph Fiennes Richard II , and I am home. I also have a soft spot for Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts, but they are less difficult to come by. But my Shakespearean nostalgia is not a case of nutty Anglophilia, for I was just as touched recently by the fine King John from the Theater for a New Audience. No, Shakespeare’s history plays must be the sentimental link in my case to England’s soil, or to “this dear land” soaked for generations in slaughter and blood that “hath made a shameful conquest of itself.”
Mr. Fiennes and the Almeida Theatre Company from London are in residence at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in both Richard II and Coriolanus through Oct. 1, and let me whisper reluctantly at the outset that I much prefer the first production. The two plays are linked more superficially than they’re making out. Coriolanus is a tragedy of pride and self-ignorance; Richard II is a tragedy of willfulness and self-knowledge. But Mr. Fiennes plays the wounded king more dazzlingly than the terrifying warrior, and his descent from the truculent, divine Richard to the mere mortal who speaks of passing kingdoms, passing lives, is immensely moving.
That this effete, petulant fool of a King, poncing about the palace in his embroidered silk as if it were Fashion Week, can rise to tragic stature as he loses the crown is Mr. Fiennes’ achievement. His Richard, it’s been well noted, grows bigger as he grows smaller. We must hear no more talk of this romantic movie star (“the bluestocking’s heartthrob,” sayeth The New York Times ) tackling the great classical stage roles as if he were some Alec Baldwin. Mr. Fiennes is a born stage actor who has long since paid his theater dues. I think he’s a more accomplished actor today than his admired, overly hyped Hamlet on the crest of Schindler’s List . His assured, intelligent command of the language, for one thing, is thrilling. His stage presence and energy are unarguable. He’s at his poetic best in tender introspection. If he’s also showy–what of that? What are leading actors for , but to show us a trick or two?
As in a theatre, the eyes of men
After a well-grac’d actor leaves the stage
Are idly bent on him that enters next …
So King Richard, who ascended the throne at age 10, acts out the role God gave him–until Bolingbroke enters to seize his crown. Richard could say then, with Coriolanus, “Like a dull actor now, I have forgot my part.” Mr. Fiennes actually enters carried aloft like a demigod posing for an official portrait to be hung over an altar, effete rather than effeminate, cutting a dash in his peacockerie. This is less the traditionally lyrical, melancholic Richard, more the stylishly spoiled brat. John of Gaunt’s dying words of staggering patriotism–played freshly minted in feverish rage by David Burke like a mad, possessed prophet–are of no interest to him. Surrounded by a thousand flatterers, he’s the petulant child-king who can do no wrong, unless God was wrong to anoint him.
The previous actor I saw playing Richard was the actress Fiona Shaw. She also went for the ruined child within, notoriously sucking his (her?) thumb in the “rash, fierce blaze of riot.” But Richard II is also about the divine right of kings versus the double blasphemy of treason and regicide. “Though I did wish him dead/ I hate the murderer,” says Bolingbroke, weeping crocodile tears. The cynical usurper is the “new modern man.” Unlike Richard and the masses, he “dives into their hearts.” For that matter, unlike the uncompromisingly proud Coriolanus, Bolingbroke–the contemporary politician–gladly stoops to sway the people, “wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles.”
Shakespeare handed Richard some of the most beautiful soliloquies in all drama, and Mr. Fiennes takes their measure in tormented, flawless melancholy. His “Let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings” is a near-scholarly contemplation; his last soliloquy–”I wasted time, and now doth time waste me”–an exquisite expression of the futility of power and the wisdom of a tragic Richard in this “all-hating world.” But no enchanting elegies are within Coriolanus , a political play of opposing ideas. No tortured inner life or poetic remorse are to be found in Rome’s unbending, unearthly warrior. What we have here is a failure to compromise.
Coriolanus–a hero in battle, a political embarrassment in peace–is a leader who fights for the nation and scorns the people. “You are too absolute,” even Volumnia, his Gorgon mother, who would have suckled him on blood if she could, warns him. He is the icy, stubbornly uncompromising “author of himself” who could no more smarm his way to the approval of the fickle plebs as he could run for Congress today. In effect, Coriolanus says of the common herd, “Fuck ’em!” (“Hang ’em,” actually.) It’s refreshing . His motto could have been taken from Horace’s Odi Profanum Vulgus : “I loathe the uncouth, vulgar throng.”
But Mr. Fiennes is too aristocratic to be a monster, too refined for killing machines. Various productions in the past have been Marxist, Fascist or Imperialist, depending on time and taste. Still, Mr. Fiennes’ snarling, patrician Coriolanus deserved a more inspired production than this generalized affair. Jonathan Kent also directed Richard II , where individuals shine and the ensemble as a whole plays powerfully in depth. In Coriolanus , there’s a towering performance from the most distinguished veteran actress Barbara Jefford as Volumnia, whose ecstasy for the scars of war rivets us. But the Aufidius of touted Linus Roache (best known for the movie Priest ) disappoints in his flatness, and others prove surprisingly run-of-the-mill.
Mr. Kent has popularized the play too blatantly with his tableau of Russian revolutionary peasants frozen like poster boys; the sight and sound of the roaring gates of hell for the offstage battle belong more to provincial touring companies. The sight of a bloodied Mr. Fiennes emerging alone and furious from the hellish battlefield is as if he’s been mauled by 200 werewolves–and won. And that was nothing compared to the undignified sight of the star facing the mob in Coriolanus’ “robes of humility,” which turned the proudest of stiff-necked warriors into a country yokel an embarrassed clown.
Let me close, before we forget the pleasures of Mr. Kent’s Richard II , with a question about whether the director has overplayed the Oedipal card in Coriolanus –the card of choice thrown down too often in Hamlet. Is the hero his mother’s son and prideful reflection–”There’s no man in the world / More bound to’s mother,” Volumnia says–or is he a mama’s boy? When Volumnia–accompanied by Coriolanus’ wife and child–begs him not to lay waste to Rome, he relents. (And by relenting, Coriolanus causes his own death.) “O mother, mother!” he cries out in a singular moment of weakness. Mr. Fiennes’ warrior drops to his knees, holding his mother as he sobs like a child. But Shakespeare’s stage direction reads only that “he holds her by the hand, silent.”
The silence speaks louder, the unspoken more.