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Linus Roache and Ralph Fiennes star at BAM in
the Almeida Theatre Company's productions of
Shakespeare's Richard II and Coriolanus
Ralph Fiennes, in the title role of William Shakespeare's Richard II, is borne in on a sedan. He has arrived ceremonially to hear his cousin Henry Bolingbroke and the Duke of Norfolk exchange inflammatory charges, including one concerning the recently deceased Duke of Gloucester's murderer. Fiennes' Richard is at once haughty and bored as he dispatches this state business with one limp hand to his clavicle and the other slowly brushing away the air. Perhaps the disinterest arises from his knowing who was behind the death: He was.

Once Richard has completed this appearance to his satisfaction, if no one else's, he proceeds to go unwittingly but steadily about dismantling his rule. The irony Shakespeare has knitted into the iambic pentameters that make up the play--many of them in rhymed couplets--is that the more debased Richard becomes at his own hands, and eventually at Bolingbroke's, the less he is an aging brat and the more a startlingly self-analytic adult.

Fiennes gets it all. In the early scenes, when he's playing at being king, he's willful, dismissive, cordial only to his friends and his queen; stuck-out-tongue petulance is his banner. Attending the dying John of Gaunt, he's short-tempered and mocking. As Richard's wanton acts accumulate--the most provocative is seizing the banished Bolingbroke's inheritance to finance a war with the Irish--Fiennes darts hither and yon, using quick glances and an unpleasant set of the mouth to convey Richard's determination and self-delusion. But when Richard returns from Ireland to find Bolingbroke already in command of much of the English soil, Fiennes skillfully transforms Richard's effete qualities into ruminative sensitivity. In the final scenes, where Richard agrees to be deposed in favor of ambitious, masterful Bolingbroke and, later, when intimations of mortality overtake the ex-king, Fiennes exhibits a dying glow as if lit by coals that are burning his insides.

Richard II, probably written in 1595, can be considered one of Shakespeare's early plays, but it certainly wasn't the first time the Bard set about detailing English history as if he were an Oliver Stone forerunner. What he was putting together for the perusal of the court--Elizabeth I saw herself as Richard II, quite wrongfully--and the citizenry was his skewed version of events chronicled by Raphael Holinshed and others. Shakespeare was so cavalier with the facts that he manufactured Richard's deposition (which was actually not held in the plain view of others), pinned on him Gloucester's demise, and perpetuated the belief that Richard was slain, although that theory has never been convincingly corroborated.

Funny that today's docudramas are generally excoriated for bending the truth when those of yester-century are revered; but that's the way things can go, in large part due to the quality of the writing. There's no question that Richard II is not a fully coherent play and is chiefly of interest for the sullen, sorrowful monarch it depicts. Its five acts cover the last three years of Richard's 22-year reign, and although there is a straightforward dramatic arc to the play--Richard's unbroken fall--odd digressions mar it. Also, quiz anyone who's read Richard II or seen it, and it's likely that nine out of 10 won't be able to explain the various crosses and double-crosses covered during the action. I asked a half-dozen people I knew to answer what would seem a simple question: Who is responsible for Gloucester's demise? (It's the catalyst for the king's implosion.) None of them was able to say. Nor, I venture to suggest, would they have been able to give a reliable geneology for all these embattled relatives.

It's likely that none of this was foremost in Shakespeare's mind when he was writing. He had points to make that grew not out of a desire to be historically accurate, but from an intention to provide a telling character study. Just as he'd turned Richard III into a portrait of vaulting malevolence, he was determined to demonstrate the deleterious effect on the country of an anointed ruler so shortsighted that all he could see was himself. Indeed, what etches Richard II into the brain as if with a sharp, pointed tool is not only the title figure's doleful situation, but the language with which he expresses it. Gearing up for some of his later protagonists--Hamlet, for one--Shakespeare gave Richard a series of hold-the-phone speeches, perhaps most moving of all the one that contains the famous lines, "For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the death of kings." There's also the speech in which Richard, considering the notion of time as if he were trying to find the beginning of a Mobius strip, declares, "I wasted time, and now doth time waste me." It's as dire a self-revelatory moment as any man could be expected to endure at the end of his life.

Like jewels in a crown, these gems are set masterfully in Jonathan Kent's production, which is full of smart little touches--none more brilliant than the flooring. Designer Paul Brown has covered the stage with a lawn going to seed, and this evocation of nature barely tamed represents an appreciation of a theme basic to the play: love of land, and disgust at any disdain shown it. This theme is most famously underlined in the script when John of Gaunt, drawing his final breaths, rhapsodizes on "this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England," and damns those who would mistreat it. Throughout the action of Richard II at BAM's Harvey Theater, characters fall to their knees on the greenish-brown lawn, tend it, pick up apples that have fallen from the one tree placed on it, and--in Richard's case--kiss it.

While Fiennes as the king cavorts in embroidered yellow trousers based on an outfit Richard II wears in a prominent National Galley diptych, he's surrounded by a group of accomplished actors. Linus Roache does Bolingbroke as if the bounding fellow were called Going-for-broke. Oliver Ford Davies makes the most of the Duke of York's quandaries about where his loyalty must lie. Emilia Fox, playing the Queen in an off-white dress so heavy with material she must hold the flowing skirt up with both hands, is an emblem of anguish. But, while the entire Almeida Theatre Company speaks the speeches trippingly and often trip-hammeringly, the performance that rivets is that of David Burke, who booms John of Gaunt's outrage at nature so that the affronted air virtually rings.

N.B.: In order to fit the Harvey stage, Kent and Brown have had to alter their set from its appearance in London's ravaged Gainsborough Studios, where there was a fissure in the upstage brick wall that looked like an inverted lightning flash. It was through this jagged space that Richard--lit in proleptic, ghostly fashion--was first carried. The back wall of the Harvey, with gliding panels standing in for that Gainsborough divide, has the look of the time-chewed wood on which 14th-century paintings were executed. Whereas the Almeida's Coriolanus has been somewhat reduced in the transfer from England, Richard II has lost a few values but, also, gained a few.

What makes the trip eminently worthwhile is Fiennes, crashing and burning with such exquisite show. He sees to it that Richard's hollow crown is hallowed.

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