It’s probably just a coincidence, but the Almeida Theater Co.’s current engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is wittily timed. As the peculiar form of theater known as election-year politics heads into its third act, the company is performing two stern Shakespearean essays on political no-no’s. “Coriolanus” offers a lesson in the importance of pandering to public opinion (hardly a necessary admonition these days, admittedly), while “Richard II” warns strongly against the dangers of presuming too much based on dynastic privilege — a fault attributed to both of our presidential hopefuls.
But it’s hardly their topicality that has made the shows a virtual sellout for the company’s monthlong run: It’s the presence in the title roles of Ralph Fiennes, the movie star who is also an Almeida regular. Fiennes, who won a Tony for the company’s “Hamlet” on Broadway, is here delving into more exotic Shakespearean territory, and delivers compelling and complex — if not equally satisfactory — performances in a pair of roles that at first blush appear to be entirely antithetical.
Richard is a sort of proto-Hamlet, a man who’s inept and heedlessly immoral in action but (eventually) touched with genius as a poet; Coriolanus is brilliant whenever battle is joined, but self-destructive when he lets his words expose his proud soul. The plays themselves, in fact, are as divergent as their central characters. “Richard II” is written entirely in verse, and for a play that depicts a civil war, it’s oddly free of alarums and excursions. Its chief interest lies in its lyrical depiction of the spiritual awakening of the title character. By contrast, the later tragedy “Coriolanus” and its hero are notably short on lyricism. It’s a play of deeds, not words, of politics more than poetics.
The two make an intriguing pair, and Fiennes and Jonathan Kent, who directs both, allow the audience to take in both the concordances and the discordances between them. On a superficial level, both Richard and Coriolanus are miserable players of politics, Richard because he feels his divine right places him above consideration of the public weal, Coriolanus because he believes his martial prowess and his honor are all-justifying — and can only be tainted by the humbling necessities of political maneuvering. But it’s how these two men, similarly ill-suited to their public roles, meet their similarly unhappy fates that distinguishes them. One is undone because he cannot betray his integrity; the other discovers his integrity only when he is undone.
“Richard II” unfolds in the twilit gloom pierced with sharp shafts of light that seems to be de rigueur for Shakespeare productions these days. Here the dank atmosphere is certainly justified by the play: The England of “Richard II” is a country in deep decline, a place where the golden light of regency has been dimmed by evil influences.
Fiennes, an actor who has specialized in both good and bad guys with an aura of sensitivity, would seem a natural fit for Richard. Perhaps that’s why he seems to go out of his way to de-emphasize this trait. From his first entrance, sitting with stiff pomp on a gothic throne, attired in florid silks that set him strikingly apart from the rest of the court, Fiennes’ Richard is a distinctly silly king. His petulance comes most strongly to the fore when Richard reacts with childish peevishness to Gaunt’s deathbed reprimands: Fiennes adds his own flourishes to Shakespeare’s boldly drawn picture of a royal tantrum — he sticks out his tongue at the dying man before gleefully usurping his wealth to fill the royal coffers.
Fiennes’ showily comic, nearly hysterical Richard certainly gives the production a vivid focus, particularly amid a supporting cast too prone to loud and generic declaiming. And it’s certainly grounded in the text of the first two acts, in which the ineptness and immorality of the king is plainly seen to be draining the lifeblood from the kingdom. But Shakespeare’s Richard begins a journey toward illumination well before Fiennes’ does; Fiennes’ decision to accentuate Richard’s antic neuroses intermittently throughout many of the character’s great lyrical speeches leaves the play without any consistent emotional depth — any poetry of the soul to match its magnificent words — until virtually its last moments.
Suffering turns a miscreant monarch into a poet who sees deeper into the nihilistic corners of existence than almost any of Shakespeare’s characters, and certainly anyone in the play. So it’s a pity that Fiennes continues to obscure this spiritual awakening almost indefinitely, negating it with trivializing comic shtick all the way into the play’s penultimate act (a sarcastic hand to his ear awaiting a royal greeting that he knows will not come, for instance, in the renunciation scene). “My grief lies all within,” says Richard toward the close of this scene, and Fiennes has suggested that it’s here that the character’s transformation finally takes place; but this is to ignore too much of the reflective poetry that precedes it, and to rob us of a more psychologically nuanced — to say nothing of sympathetic — portrait of a man spiritually ennobled by grief and misfortune.
What is lost becomes instantly clear in Fiennes’ last scene, when Richard, robbed of his royal robes, stands chained to the floor of his cell and imprisoned in a shaft of light. Fiennes delivers the deposed king’s last great speech with great sensitivity, meticulously navigating his way through its dense philosophy with both a clear-sighted intelligence and a bruised spiritual majesty. “I wasted time, and now time doth waste me,” he says with a piteous humility. The play’s emotional impact finally arrives in its full measure, but it’s too little, too late.
There is a similar, and more apt, emphasis on comedy in Kent’s “Coriolanus.” The play has at times been pegged as a satire, and Fiennes gives full and delicious scope to the warrior Coriolanus’ wry, disgusted encounters with the Roman tribunes and the people. Also delightfully dry is Oliver Ford Davies as Menenius. Indeed, Davies plays similar roles in both plays — as the Duke of York in “Richard II,” he displays much of the same fatigued, ironical pragmatism that he does as the peace-making Menenius in “Coriolanus.” While great leaders rise and fall, and revolutions wax and wane, the subtle, unassuming performances of this capable actor suggest that there will always be men of intelligence, effort and good will who are ground beneath the wheels of the state even as they are instrumental in keeping it on course.
On the whole, the company fares far better in “Coriolanus” than in “Richard II” (with the curious exception of Linus Roache, who makes little of the major role of Bolingbroke in “Richard II” and scarcely more of Aufidius in “Coriolanus”; his classical verse technique seems to consist primarily of twisting the volume knob up and down haphazardly). David Burke’s Comidius and the wily tribunes of Alan David and Bernard Gallagher are effective, but the standout supporting performance in “Coriolanus” comes from Barbara Jefford as a fire-breathing Volumnia, a mother who most willingly suckled a bloodthirsty warrior and just as willingly betrays him.
But it’s Fiennes’ mesmerizing Coriolanus that gives the production both its energy and, more surprisingly, its humanity. Fiennes does not offer us merely a bellowing warrior whose excessive pride is his single and simple tragic flaw. He’s suitably bloodthirsty as needed (in Kent’s boldly drawn conception, Fiennes looks spookily like Carrie at the prom during the Romans’ initial battles with the Volscians), but there is a vivid, quixotic nobility in this warrior’s pride, and his disdain for public approbation seems to stem from an authentic sensitivity rather than simple churlishness.
With his eyes afire and, in a particularly effective piece of staging, his back turned to public ceremony, Fiennes’ Coriolanus is also loyal to a vision of human possibility that everyone else has long since forsaken in favor of more smudged, dissimulating, dishonest personae. Shakespeare’s attitude toward the vacillating populace in this play is more nuanced than in others, but in an age when politicians are too wont to follow rather than lead the public, the proud integrity of Fiennes’ Coriolanus asserts itself as admirable — even thrilling — and his treatment at the hands of the Romans’ is consequently more piteous.
So we share his benumbed march toward vengeance, and when Volumnia bears down upon him with her plea for mercy to Rome, this most political of Shakespeare plays reaches a devastating emotional climax. The hero’s mother’s strange love, it’s easy enough to conclude, resulted in a man whose pride may just hide a bone-deep insecurity — the man still needs a mother’s approval more than anything else. Fiennes plays the scene with shattering stillness, finally crumpling into Volumnia’s breast as he capitulates, making us aware that Coriolanus’ assent is both an act of mercy and a plea for mercy: Both know his capitulation will cost him his life. It’s a deft, brilliant stroke that crowns a thoroughly captivating performance.
Shakespeare productions ultimately rise or fall on their allegiance to the playwright’s greatest gift, the truths he tells of the human heart. It’s here, surprisingly, that Fiennes’ Richard II falls a little short, while his Coriolanus, the manifestly more inhuman hero, succeeds — much like the warrior who bested a city of Volscians — against all odds.