Fiennes Provides Two Portraits

Thursday, September 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) — Let's hear it for chameleon power. In this case, the ability of Ralph Fiennes to provide two strikingly different yet mesmerizing portraits of a pair of Shakespeare's more problematic heroes.

Anti-heroes, actually, may be more like it. ``Richard II'' and ``Coriolanus'' are not high on anybody's all-time favorite list of the Bard's works, although ``Coriolanus'' seems to have had a resurgence of productions in recent years and ``Richard II'' contains some of the master's most eloquent poetry.

Yet Fiennes, with an assist from director Jonathan Kent and a superb company of supporting players, manages to make a compelling case for both plays. He even finds something almost noble in these two deeply flawed men, particularly Richard.

The productions are courtesy of London's Almeida Theater Company, which is running its own mini-rep at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through Oct. 1. If the themes of both plays are surprisingly similar — the use and misuse of power — their leading characters are not.

Fiennes' Richard is a petulant, prissy monarch, whose misguided sense of divine right can only lead to disaster. He is a nervous fellow, wary of the popularity of his cousin — and immediate successor — Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV.

The actor works effectively against his matinee-idol good looks, twitching his dark, piercing eyes and twisting his body with the nervous tics of a grievously insecure man. The stage at BAM's Harvey Theater is carpeted in grass, a turf that Richard guards with a possessiveness that borders on the neurotic.

That possessiveness, particularly of his own crown, gets Richard into a lot of trouble. With his banishment of Bolingbroke, portrayed with a laser-beam intensity by Linus Roache, the king sets in motion his own downfall.

What makes Fiennes so effective is his ability to convey Richard's realization of his own doom. It's more than melancholy. This self-awareness involves the growing-up of one of England's most childish monarchs, a process that Fiennes beautifully conveys.

It doesn't hurt that Fiennes has a rich, plummy voice that does full justice to some of Shakespeare's most dazzling verse. Listen to his rendition of Richard's ``Not all the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm off from an anointed king,'' and you'll realize that Bolingbroke may eventually get the monarchy, but not before he has forever sullied his own cause.

``Coriolanus,'' a semi-modern dress version set in a rigidly class-conscious ancient Rome, represents neuroses of a different sort. It's mostly blood lust, which Fiennes plays with a ferocity that would unnerve the mightiest of soldiers. The actor is not a physically large man, no Arnold Schwarzenegger, but his energy and vocal strength make him a brutish giant even on the vast Harvey stage.

His Coriolanus is the only man who can contain the rabble of Rome, a fact not lost on the empire's leaders who need someone to defend the downtrodden against invaders. Yet Coriolanus would just as soon hang the riffraff as fight for them, a quirk that eventually takes him over to the side of the enemy, again played by the excellent Linus Roache.

The only person Coriolanus can't seem to conquer is Volumnia, his mother. As played by the astonishing Barbara Jefford, she is a a steely matriarch, a fearless woman who is even more of a warrior than her son.

If ``Coriolanus'' is not as satisfying as ``Richard II,'' it may be because the man who is a Roman killing machine remains the same throughout the play. His downfall is compelling but not as heartbreaking or involving as the English king's. Still, with Fiennes leading the charge, self-destruction has never seemed so fascinating.