The sudden rise in paparazzi in Brooklyn can mean only one thing: The Almeida has landed at BAM. Continuing its highly successful campaign of luring brand-name movie stars back to serious drama, London’s hippest theater now brings us Ralph Fiennes in a Shakespeare double-header. The sold-out bill features two vastly different political object lessons—Richard II, the tragic chronicle of the ineffectual poet-king; and Coriolanus, the twisted saga of the highly decorated Roman soldier who’s unable to adapt his martial sensibility to civilian life. Strange bedfellows, you might say, and certainly not the most obvious choices for Fiennes’s bookishly handsome appeal. While it’s no great stretch to imagine Fiennes as a lyrical monarch, it takes much suspension of disbelief to accept him as a human war machine. The overwhelming impression of seeing him in both roles is that of an actor studiously testing his range. Laudable as that may be, Fiennes seems reaching not so much for theatrical greatness (which may be beyond his grasp) as some measure of indisputable stage authenticity.
Cynicism aside, one should acknowledge the fluidity of Jonathan Kent’s direction, which demonstrates a competence rarely encountered in homegrown productions of the Bard, never mind in two of his trickier plays. It doesn’t take an Anglofool to bemoan the uneven quality of our Shakespeare, when a mere stroll in Central Park can open anyone’s eyes to the pitfalls of a lack of tradition. Yet tradition, too, has its costs, including strangling directorial freedom and reducing acting to a parade of eloquent stereotypes. It may not be easy to recall the last time we saw an American cast all acting on the same Shakespearean page, but it’s just as hard to remember being moved by a touring British stopover.
The sleek Almeida twin-pack doesn’t really alter the equation, though it certainly has the distraction of Fiennes in various poses of dishabille. His Richard II positively gleams with fey glamour. Dressed in shiny yellow pants and a blindingly white jacket, he enters the grass-covered stage on a throne, like a spoiled rich kid taking a ride in a high chair. He’s not so much effeminate as addicted to pomp, the better perhaps to conceal his craven mismanagement. But though one can easily imagine Fiennes’s Majesty entertaining himself all night with mooching courtiers, it’s hard to see him crushing the Irish rebels—or for that matter even crossing the Irish Sea. This is a Richard that would seem prone to seasickness.
Kent directs the king’s downfall with ceremonial flourish. The play begins with a formal dispute involving Richard’s first cousin Bolingbroke, whose capricious banishment and disinheritance spur him to rescue verdant England from its current depredation. Threatened with uncousinly usurpation, Richard spins elaborate metaphors, drawing out the discrepancy between his mortal flesh and his divinely appointed position. Paradoxically (or is it masochistically?), the more he’s humiliated, the more he grows in inner stature; he recognizes the significance of his royal birthright from the pit of prison, even as nihilistic thoughts torment him.
Because Richard is the poet of his own misery, the pathos of his situation isn’t always readily accessible. Fiennes complicates matters further with his hammy voice and demeanor, which relent only belatedly in his character’s final moments. Yes, the king is fundamentally an actor (one obsessed with the symbolism of his role), but his humanity needs to crack through earlier to earn our pity. From his surrender of the crown, to his parting moments with Queen Isabel, Fiennes’s Richard has all the emotional substance of a rhetorician in love with his own voice—an accurate interpretation, but a partial one.
Perhaps the ensemble’s musical clarity in speaking the verse diverts them from their characterizations. Bolingbroke’s escalating perniciousness, for example, should abet our tragic sympathy for Richard, yet Linus Roache seems reluctant to play the dastard; he remains the people’s savior even when privately possessed by the spirit of Machiavelli. Truly wasted is the brief but sublime poignancy between Isabel and the gardener, from whom she hears that her husband has been overthrown. In fury at his news, she prays that nothing he plants may ever grow. But the gardener, being the custodian of an order more irrevocable than the divine right of kings, vows to put down some rue where her royal tears fell. With a brutalizing roughness that’s the downside of Kent’s directorial efficiency, the tender scene is plowed down with the subtlety of a lawn mower.
While the secondary performances are generally stronger in Coriolanus (excepting Roache’s indifferent Aufidius), the production similarly fails to gather emotional strength. The problem here sits squarely on Fiennes’s shoulders. Lacking the requisite warrior presence, Fiennes amplifies the Roman soldier’s aristocratic hauteur. As a result, his character’s inability to play the phony political games of peacetime seems like a superior philosophical position rather than the embodiment of an outmoded ethic. With so much heady awareness on display, it’s hard to swallow the extent to which Coriolanus remains an oedipal casualty—Mars on the outside, imploding mama’s boy within. Fiennes’s portrait simply doesn’t add up.
Many have called Coriolanus Shakespeare’s most political play, so focused is the work on the shifting meaning of the word virtue—from the narrow military sense emphasizing valor to a broader set of values encompassing Rome’s young (and still shaky) republican spirit. Every cell in Coriolanus’s vainglorious body scoffs at the hungry plebeians, who want to capitalize on their growing political power now that the Volscians have been subdued. The somewhat schematic nature of the conflict inhibits the kind of breathtaking introspection found in King Lear and Macbeth; yet Shakespeare’s last tragedy is built on uncanny psychological understanding. Coriolanus is a case study of a character trapped in an adolescent zone of sexual immaturity. What’s so fascinating is the way Shakespeare links this to his protagonist’s primitive militarism, which is both the sine qua non of civil society and the dark shadow that threatens to undermine it. Rome needs Coriolanus to put down the barbarians, yet once that’s done there’s no place for his tyrannical temperament in the democratic scheme of things.
Without taking an ideological stance, Kent allows the story to tumble forward at an engaging clip. He is well served by his veteran actors, particularly Oliver Ford Davies as the pandering patrician Menenius and Barbara Jefford as the glowering, Juno-like Volumnia—a juggernaut of maternal determination. It’s clear from the outset that her far less intimidating son doesn’t stand a chance against her. This is why his collapse at the end, when she begs him not to take vengeance against Rome for having banished him, has so little impact. The knockout is inevitable; Fiennes is just too nice a guy to tell his mother no.