Almeida's Richard II at The Brooklyn Academy of Music

Geoff Zeger

Britain based Almeida Theatre Company brings sterling performances of William Shakespeare’s Richard II and Coriolanus to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). The title roles of both shows star Ralph Fiennes. Previous movie credits by Ralph Fiennes include "Schindler’s List," "The English Patient," and most recently "The End of the Affair" and "Sunshine."

The Almeida Theatre Company has been making its mark since 1990 with shows that have included Ralph Fiennes as Hamlet (in 1995), Liam Neeson in Judas Kiss, Diana Rigg as Euripides’ Medea, and Kevin Spacey in the Iceman Cometh. The Artistic Director of the Almeida, Jonathan Kent, who directs BAM’s Richard II, has also directed Ralph Fiennes in Chekhov’s Ivanov in 1997. Ivanov was eventually toured to Moscow. Jonathan Kent and co-artistic director Ian McDiarmid took over a 303-seat theatre in north London and brought renewed vigor and craft to a building, which was at one time a lecture hall, a factory, and even a Salvation Army center.

Richard II does not have the fame of a hunchback, or a myriad of quotes that are now part of everyday lexicon. It is significant, however, as the Shakespearean Historical Play marking the beginning of the War of the Roses. The usurpation of the boy king, Richard II by Henry of Bolinbroke began the 50 year civil war between the House of Lancaster (Red Rose) and the House of York (White Rose). Some have even considered the ensuing war a curse for taking the throne without legal or spiritual claim. The King of England was a minister of God, and Henry of Bolinbroke was a Duke and subject of the crown. In Act IV of Richard II, the Bishop of Carlisle predicts what will happen if Bolinbroke seizes the crown: "And if you crown him, let me prophesy, the blood of English shall manure the ground and future ages groan for this foul act." The War of the Roses ends with Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Richard III.

Richard II at BAM begins at approximately 7:55PM. "Why," you may ask? Don’t shows traditionally commence at 8:00PM? Yes, but shortly before 8, while the audience is scuttling around, buzzing with conversation and adjusting seats, cast members slowly, and one at a time, begin to enter. The house lights are still on. John of Gaunt meanders to a downstage position and waits. Shortly thereafter, Mowbray enters, and then his supporters. Bolinbroke and his supporters enter. Everyone is waiting. The audience is waiting and the cast members are waiting. Suddenly, with a flurry of glorious music and lights, the King is brought onto the stage, all cast members go down to one knee, and the house lights go down. This entrance emphasizes the contrast between the King in the beginning, as an instrument of God, and in the end, locked in a prison. There is a beautifully crafted arc from high to low – the fall of one who is great. A tragic fall from power is seen in the costume change of from white silk with gold embroidery at the beginning, to a shirtless, chained, and dethroned King with no name or title at the show's end. The arc is further supported by the acting mastery of Ralph Fiennes. Historically, Richard II inherited the throne in 1377 when he was 10 years old. He was a lover of music, pageantry, and luxury. His character was self-obsessed with his own omnipotence. He was mercurial, and more prone to play than to rule. Ralph Fiennes gracefully negotiates these character traits with completely believable behavior and mannerisms. On camera, the inward dwelling and moody Fiennes absorbs attention in a close-up, but this does not hinder his ability to adeptly move around the stage and utilize his voice as an instrument. He commands the verse, antonyms and antithesis, thus applying technique without sacrificing story.

Richard II’s nemesis, Bolinbroke (played by the up and coming Linus Roache) also goes through a character transformation. Initially, when challenging Mowbray, Bolinbroke is pompous and arrogant – almost to the point of unlikability. As his determination to reclaim his rightful property grows and he makes his case, he morphs into a clear, cogent character who wins over audience affection. Eventually an audience member says, "yeah...he’s right!" As his power grows, so does his ability to seek right from wrong. Linus Roache adroitly handles the guilt of usurping the crown, and dethroning his cousin.

All cast members receive a thumbs up. Ralph Fiennes is the centerpiece and actor of name in the production, but all of the cast commanded the meter and fully committed to their characters. The story of Richard II was clearly told, transitions between events occurred smoothly, the audience is absorbed in each moment with a desire to know what will happen next, and at no time did the words overshadow the action. Rather, the skill of the actors enhanced the action. For more information on the Brooklyn Academy of Music, check out www.bam.org/index.htm and for more information on the Almeda Theatre Company check out www.almeida.co.uk.


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