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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Take the elegant Shakespearean profile and well-trained voice, add a multifaceted portrait of the king whose ineptitude cost him the throne he inherited as a boy, and it's easy to understand all the buzz about Ralph Fiennes' Richard II. From the moment he is carried on stage a vision in white and gold -- white throne, white satin robe, and dandyish embroidered pants to match his gold crown -- you know you are in the presence of a king who loves the trappings of royalty but sorely lacks the wisdom to rule. Unlike Richard who was all show and no substance, Fiennes is the genuine article -- a superb actor who also happens to be a film star.
This Richard is not just an inept dandy, but unstable and full of erratic mannerisms. Most tragically, his arrogance and superficiality lead to rash actions. The most fateful of these misconceived acts, and the one seeding the play's central conflict, sees Richard imperiously exile two of his subjects instead of letting them fight out their differences. One of these exiles, his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, consequently spearheads an insurrection to rid the country of its out-of-touch ruler, and in the process take over the throne.
Fiennes' madcap Richard often evokes laughter, but that's not to say this production has turned tragedy into comedy. When adversity strikes and his reign must end the mannered fop eventually shows majesty and our disdainful laughter turns to sympathy for this boy-king's too-late transformation from self-adulation to self-awareness. He's still full of theatrical bravado during the famous uncrowning scene, yet the final emergence from daffy dandy to tragic figure is utterly convincing so that his melancholy "I wasted time and now doth time waste me" when he is shackled and ragged reaches right into our heart.
In Linus Roache, Fiennes has a worthy stage opponent. Like Fiennes he is a strikingly handsome man and an actor who knows how to get inside his character. Though his Henry Bolingbroke is more understated, less showy than Fiennes' Richard it is a performance with great depth, filled with simmering feeling. Roache's Henry is more do-the-right-thing than Machiavellian. He is as self-controlled as Richard is not. It is an interpretation that dovetails beautifully with Fiennes' volatile Richard.
Oliver Ford Davis is marvelously wry as the Duke of York, the man torn between the cousins and David Burke magnificently delivers John of Gaunt's deathbed speech. Barbara Jefford as York's duchess and Oliver Ryan as their son Aumerle are also excellent.
Jonathan Kent's production, brilliantly lit by Mark Henderson, takes its cue from Shakespeare's penchant for garden metaphors. The play's themes are symbolized by having the entire stage a grassy expanse with a single tree that will shed its leaves and fruit as Richard sheds his crown. The costumes are of the period. The black-clad courtiers' serve as an ominous contrast to Richard and his immediate entourage in their white garments.
Richard II is presented in repertory with Coriolanus -- a fascinating pairing of plays about very different men who lose their power. Here Fiennes plays a man who earned rather than inherited the crown and Roache is again his chief adversary. Having seen an outstanding Coriolanus at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox less than a month ago, I've left the review of the current Coriolanus to Les Gutman. Judging from what I've seen though it's safe to say that theater goers lucky enough to obtain tickets to see Fiennes and the rest of the Almeida Theatre Company's cast in either production are in for a treat.
While there's nothing to take the place of the live experience, especially when staged in such imposing venues as the Gainsborough Film Studios in London and the Harvey Theater in Brooklyn, one can only hope that this interesting theatrical "twinning" will at some point be filmed so that it can reach an even wider audience.
Richard II in London
Richard II at the Pearl
Richard II paired with RichardI II
Coriolanus -- London . . . Coriolanus -- London. (For a review of a widely praised, smaller production of Coriolanus directed by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Company, go here .