The Play's The Thing

From the Front Office: Review of Ralph Fiennes

The new issue of What's Up Stage is on its way. Here's a snippet.

Every once in a while, you're handed a little slice of heaven on earth. About a week ago, I enjoyed a big, fat slice. Skeptical? My four days in New York included three days of performances by Ralph Fiennes. First, as Richard II, and then as Coriolanus, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where the Jonathan Kent production has made itself comfortable. On my last day, I was treated to 3 1/2 hours of watching Fiennes on videotape, as Hamlet at the Belasco Theatre.

Now you believe me.

Don't bother asking me which I liked better between the two live plays. It doesn't do either of them justice to compare. And fortunately, I don't have to choose. Instead, I'll take the opportunity to review them together, along with Fiennes' Hamlet, since such celestial alignment has gifted me so generously.

The plays were performed in the smaller theatre at BAM, where, according to both my companions on different days, the feeling of the Shoreditch location was evoked quite well. A discarded warehouse, rusted, peeling, but oddly ornamental. The interior of the theatre is "distressed" in the way that blue jeans were intentionally attacked several years ago, for a worn-in look and feel. I'm not sure how the venue would work for "warm" or "fuzzy" plays; it seems wonderfully suited for "The Cherry Orchard". (My memory is at work here--stemming from a production in which I saw a sole tree represented on stage, much as there is a sole tree on stage for Richard II. Isn't theatre wonderful?)

Richard II

In both plays, there is no doubt that Fiennes is the centerpiece, as well as the star. In Richard II especially, the text conspires to achieve as much. This is not to take away from the supporting cast, which was never less than good. Young and not so young, the company can all speak verse clearly, with meaning and inflection, to the purpose. It's easy to take that talent for granted, until you're cringing through a production where someone just hasn't got the knack. Then Shakespeare can seem horribly long. Experience helps a lot, and the older cast members convey the meaning of their scenes with a bit more trust to the audience. They know that we will wait for the line, having faith in their delivery; doubly so during what humourous bits there are--which an audience is grateful for, in my experience.

Before the lights go down, Richard's soldiers and counselors, begin to mill about on the expanse of angled green grass which fronts the stage. They are in anticipation, and speak among themselves. But the real opening suceeds in setting the tone; two panels silde apart, and from between them, the king is carried in on a tall white throne. Fiennes is wrapped in a long white tunic ornamented in gold, with yellow gold slim breeches underneath. On his feet, something like slippers--underscoring that he needn't bother with the habillements of the real world. Fancy stand-in pajamas will do. During his descent from the throne--which garners an audience repsonse in itself--Richard's delicacy of leg and turned out feet seem unused. At the start of the play, Richard appears slight of mind, that is to say he does not show any depth of character or human understanding, beyond his power to rule.

Regal, rich-blooded, and little patient, Fiennes as Richard struck the right notes as a petulant boy ruler. When circumstances require him to visit a dying man--John of Gaunt--Fiennes is profoundly uninterested in the whole affair--choosing to flick the blooms off of flowers while a man bewails his fate. This king has no conection to men, whatever they are. Although religious men are not necessarily generous in spirit to man, I likewise sensed no real connection to God, beyond using God as his sword and shield in having the Last Word.

Did Jeremy Irons do Richard II for the Royal Shakespeare Company? I believe he did.

At the start of the play, Richard is rooting out treason. And Richard seems--to the end--to believe he is untouchable, since he sits protected by the Divine Right by which he rules. Even as events--not that there really are "events"--unfold, his transformation is by no means total. They are sinning, against God and man, when they strike at him, and when they degrade him.

Ths use of music--sounds--I found underused in Richard II. Granted, this is not a musical, and yes, Shakespearean verse has its own music from which a director might not wish to detract. The language of this play is very rich and complex to the ear. However, my own feeling is that while light, costume, and space are key elements, sound and music in particular need a place in stage productions. We hear a play--as author Sarah Hatchuel noted in her interview for her book about Shakespeare in performance--and sound, or the marked absence of it, can tune us in to the music of the language.

Coriolanus used sounds a bit more effectively--although it was R&B mostly, "rattle and battle"--thunder, and war-like sounds, nothing really unexpected or unusual. Or memorable.

That said, the music of Fiennes' voice--and it is"The Voice Beautiful" makes the throat an instrument. On stage, he seems to drop his jaw and fill the hollow of his mouth to achieve an added power to the volume and weight of his voice. The declamatory style which Gielgud embodied (though I never saw him on stage) has been usurped by Fiennes.

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