Some stage actors are only “discovered” late in their careers. Not Ralph Fiennes. In 1988, just three years after graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (where he’d won prizes for verse-speaking, diction and stage-fighting), he auditioned for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“You really remember the good ones, and when he came in to audition, it was pretty clear he was special. In fact, it was screamingly obvious.” So says Adrian Noble, the RSC’s former artistic director.
Noble was casting the tricky role of Henry VI, the title character of the Shakespeare trilogy that bears his name. “Looking back, I realize I hadn’t completely worked out how Henry should be played. But at Ralph’s audition he completed my thought process. We required someone easy with the verse, with both the vulnerability and the nobility of a king. But Ralph also had a danger about him. It came from a single-mindedness.”
That quality is the hallmark of Fiennes’ stage persona. His fierce concentration on the directness of a character’s thought at any point lends intellectual clarity and immediacy to whomever he’s playing.
The year before making his mark at the RSC, Fiennes had played three roles at the National Theater, all directed by Michael Rudman.
“Even then,” says Rudman, “he was unusually mature, both as an actor and a man. He was physically fit and worked hard. He fitted in. Even when problems surfaced within the company, he remained very unruffled.”
It’s a widely held misapprehension that all British actors have a solid grounding in Shakespeare, but Fiennes really does. And his performances have been with the cream of British directors. Declan Donnellan directed him as Romeo, Sam Mendes directed him as Troilus in “Troilus and Cressida,” Deborah Warner cast him in the plum role of the Dauphin in “King John,” and he was Edmund in “King Lear” for Nicholas Hytner. And then came “Hamlet.”
The last of these was another instance of that single-mindedness. He persuaded his agent to call up helmer Jonathan Kent, who was then joint a.d. of the Almeida
Theater, to ask him if he would consider directing him as the Danish prince.
“I’d seen him but never met him,” Kent remembers. “But as I was talking, I suddenly thought his would be the Hamlet I would like to see. He has an aristocracy of spirit.”
Two years later, the production happened and transferred to Broadway, where Fiennes became the only actor ever to win a Tony in the role. It also sparked an actor-director relationship that has flowered a further five times, including Kent’s Broadway revival of Brian Friel’s quiet masterpiece “Faith Healer,” in which Fiennes straddled his character’s shaman-or-charlatan conundrum with affecting, distilled intensity.
Kent, directing him in Sophocles’ “Oedipus” at the National, argues that Fiennes’ screen work has influenced his stage mastery.
“If you’re the lead character in a play, you have to keep the entire structure in your head in order to get through the whole thing. Great screen actors allow the moment to happen, which is then captured in closeup. Ralph is used to that, which allows for a degree of spontaneity in performance that stage often does not.”
Unlike some, Fiennes is not a movie name who retreats to the stage when screen offers dry up. Much as he loves film, as he tells Variety, “There are certain parts that I’ve longed to play and I have no qualms about saying, ‘Right, that year I’m going to do this in the
And he’s continuing to broaden his theatrical range. This year he surprised many by being brutally funny in Matthew Warchus’ scintillating production of Yasmina Reza’s brittle dark comedy “The God of Carnage.”
So what is it about theater that keeps him coming back for more?
“It’s scary being onstage,” he observes. It’s always an adrenaline nerve factor about being in front of an audience, and that doesn’t go away. Maybe I’m a bit addicted to it.”