It’s been commonly asserted that Ralph Fiennes is the best classical actor of his generation, and on the basis of “Richard II” and “Coriolanus,” I would add only that he is clearly the brightest, as well. Does intelligence matter when it comes to performance? Remarkably so in the case of Fiennes, who has a rare gift for communicating such a clear understanding of Shakespeare that it often sounds as if he is minting the text anew. People are going to have their own reasons for attending the Almeida’s most ambitious stage project to date, a $3.5 million rotating repertory of the Bard — directed, with varying degrees of success, by Jonathan Kent — that continues on from London’s extraordinary Gainsborough Studios site to New York and Tokyo in the fall. But even those content simply to stargaze may be jolted to attention by how immediate and intuitive Shakespeare sounds as spoken by Fiennes, whose dual achievement here lies not simply in the near-heroic endurance required for the task over seven months but in the education that his performances allow the keenly attuned listener.
When is the last time, for instance, that you heard the Coriolanus in Richard II — that’s to say, the warrior shadowing the poet — just as, in Fiennes’ deft hands, that potential swaggerer, Caius Martius (later exalted as the Coriolanus of the title), here seems capable both of sorrow and of a lyrically felt pain? True, one play concerns a king who becomes a man, while the other is revealed as a study in a toppled near-God glimpsed — at least in confrontation with his mother Volumnia (a definitive Barbara Jefford, vamping about like a long-gowned 1940s film star until her eleventh-hour beseechings scorch the house) — as something approaching a very small and unhappy boy. But as acted by Fiennes with an empathy and exactitude surpassing anything in the decade-plus of classical work that I’ve seen him do, the two roles jointly constitute a memorable study in self-definition on behalf both of the characters and of a no less restless and questing star, whose ongoing commitment to the theater would mean nothing without the acute passion to bear it out.
Long before he found fame in the movies, Fiennes cut a singular figure onstage, not least as the most rapturous Berowne imaginable in a Terry Hands-directed “Love’s Labour’s Lost” for the Royal Shakespeare Co., the actor’s erstwhile home. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to feel that the screen has improved Fiennes’ theater presence — he’s far more at ease now in his body than he once was — even as his absences from the theater have redoubled his self-evident affection for it. Listening to Richard II luxuriate in his own language (the play is arguably Shakespeare’s most sensuously phrased), one feels an actor so at one with the nuances of the role that the unindividuated supporting performances around him — Oliver Ford Davies’ movingly wry and distraught Duke of York excepted — cease to matter. And if Linus Roache, Fiennes’ onetime RSC compatriot, is an oddly pallid Bolingbroke, Roache has “Coriolanus” to look forward to, where he can let rip — admittedly, without Fiennes’ vocal control — as yet another nemesis, Tullus Aufidius.
In the case of “Coriolanus,” the riskier and also better of the two productions, the supporting cast comes into its own, with veteran performers Jefford and Davies — the latter playing a wracked and ultimately debased Menenius — blazing their own baleful way. And yet, even with this more single-minded of Shakespearean anti-heroes, Fiennes seems to hear notes in the role that have rarely been struck before. Let’s put it this way: if your association with this play is of so much testosterone on parade — Sly Stallone as Coriolanus? Well, there’s always Shakespeare in the Park — it’s the Bardic equivalent of a seismic jolt to encounter a “Coriolanus” where one is, against the odds with this of all plays, moved.
“Richard II” began its engagement two months ago and can now be seen, in light of the just-opened “Coriolanus,” as a dry run for the later production’s achievements. Fiennes aside, the space is the event: a onetime stomping-ground for a young Alfred Hitchcock (“The Lodger” and “The Lady Vanishes” were both shot there) that has been brought to its present state of heightened and semi-chic distress at a cost of $1.1 million. At first, again leaving Fiennes out of the equation, one can’t see anything but the auditorium — a high-walled soaring near-folly of an architectural feat (the gashes in the wall come into their metaphoric own in “Coriolanus,” very much a play obsessed with schisms) that seems as tall as it is wide: the theater as arena. At the same time, the deliberately epic scale acts as both a throwback to the past and a challenge to the future in its jettisoning of the prevailing British fashion for under-the-microscope Shakespeare (to wit, the Sam Mendes “Othello” and Richard Eyre’s “Lear”). The writing, Kent seems to be saying, has size and dimension and demands productions to match, however faux-operatic his directorial approach may at times appear. (Those phobic toward thunder and lightning, stage blood and dry ice should look elsewhere.)
With parched (if aromatic) grass forming its own roped-off rectangle at the front of Paul Brown’s spare but mightily deployed set, the visuals of “Richard II” threaten to supplant a lot of fairly murky and shout-heavy vocals — until, that is, Richard II begins to fall and Kent’s semi-expressionist staging finds its footing. That rescue operation has everything to do with Fiennes, who turns Richard’s downward spiral into a poetic flirtation with death as told by a monarch reluctantly made man.
Not only do references to “my precious crown” betray a panicky egoism that seems to anticipate Coriolanus. But Richard’s petulant playfulness is echoed in the subsequent play by the funny-voiced Roman patrician at moments of ripest (and most chilling) mockery. Fiennes couldn’t be clearer about two men forced into roles, whether as king or as killer, that fail to tell the whole story. His liquid poetry notwithstanding, Richard II finishes up no less envenomed by “an all-hating world” than does Coriolanus; the difference is that Richard achieves an almost Wordsworthian sense of illumination whereas Coriolanus — for all the chinks Fiennes finds in his armor — proceeds embattled and unenlightened to his end.
That said, the second performance bears none of the somewhat monotonous singlemindedness that can characterize an insolent narcissist who is brought low in a way only a mother (and Freud) could love. Notice those celebrated Fiennes eyes, tellingly mean and dead at the play’s start, flickering with pain at a mother’s prayers long before Coriolanus’ speech gives his capitulation to filial entreaty away. At times, he emerges as so forbidding and cold that one feels as if “Schindler’s List’s” Amon Goeth had taken to the stage (the actor’s first appearance in “Coriolanus,” neck shrunken and forehead glistening, prompts its own semi-audible gasp); at others he’s the well-bred scion of “Quiz Show” outfitted in warrior gear and wanting to do right by his duties as son.
Are there two Ralph Fienneses? (His new film, “Sunshine,” offers up three.) More like one exceedingly smart actor, who should be encouraged toward every blandishment offered up by the screen if those, in turn, send him — and a breathless audience — hurtling back to his natural home on the stage.