Ralph Fiennes remembers exactly the first time he experienced the work of William Shakespeare. “I was taken at the age of five to a small country cinema to see Laurence Olivier’s Henry V by my parents,” he says, recalling the moment fondly with a throaty laugh. “I remember I was put in a little jacket for the event of going out to the cinema.” But it wasn’t this 1944 big-screen Technicolour version of Shakespeare that was to make an impact on the young Fiennes. “What really made Shakespeare get inside my head was when my mother told me – in her own words and in a very simplified and accessible way – the story of Hamlet when I was about eight or nine.
That story really affected me and I badgered her with questions about it so much that she put on an old record of Laurence Olivier doing speeches from his film version of Hamlet. I was completely transfixed by the sound of that extraordinary voice, taking me through those words – even though I didn’t understand all the words. It mesmerised me with its power and rhythm, and there was something in it that was seductive.” Fiennes goes very quiet for a moment as he loses himself in the memory. “I can still see myself sitting there on the sofa listening to this voice coming through on the speaker and trying to follow it in a copy of the play – with my mother intermittently explaining what stuff meant.” And even though it was to be many years before Fiennes realised he wanted a career as an actor, he also recalls performing parts of Hamlet as a result of this early experience. “I learned parts of the play that way and I would recite little bits of those speeches – although my early recitals were probably terrible imitations of Olivier. And although his delivery does seem of another time, it still has a kind of magic for me.”
Forty years on Fiennes is once again following in Laurence Olivier’s footsteps. Just as Henry V was Olivier’s debut as a film director and his first time playing a Shakespeare character on the screen rather than the stage, Fiennes has – for the first time – taken his prodigious Shakespearean talents into the cinema, directing and playing the lead in a screen version of Coriolanus. The idea came to Fiennes after a successful run of the play on the London stage more than ten years ago, and the project has been an obsession ever since. “Although it’s a dense play and textually difficult in its original form, I thought that its narrative drive would lend itself to film,” Fiennes explains. “And the thought stayed, and developed, in my mind.”
There’s no doubt that Shakespeare has been a crucial partner for Fiennes throughout his career. After graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1985, his first roles were in open-air versions of Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Two years later he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, quickly becoming noted as an actor to watch. Fiennes recalls one important moment in his first season at the RSC, whilst playing Henry VI. “It’s a wonderful part and he’s such a tragic king – the antithesis of Henry V,” he says. “And the high point of the role is when the king is sitting on a molehill in the middle of a battlefield wishing he was a shepherd. And then he witnesses this incredibly stylised moment when from one side of the stage a son drags on a body to discover he’s killed his father, and from the other side a father drags on a body to discover he has killed his son. It’s the most extraordinary writing. And it’s actually pure Shakespeare. It’s incredible how he can put his finger on the pain point of what it means to be human with all its madness and grief, its anger and violence and the pity. That moment is the reason to play the part, really.”
Finding a way to make the beauty of a Shakespearean story work on screen is fraught with difficulty. You only have to look at the long list of adaptations that are barely more than filmed stage productions to realise the challenge of stripping away huge chunks of often much-loved text and replacing it with cinematic moments. It was a task that Fiennes approached with some caution when it came to adapting Coriolanus, and his starting point was talking to world-renowned theatre and film director Peter Brooke. “He reminded me that we had to embrace a completely naturalistic delivery of the text. Film loves naturalism and I remembered when I first left the RSC and did some television work, I suddenly felt released that I didn’t have to project or extend myself vocally or gesturally. I realised that I could speak at the level I did in my own kitchen or in a shop, or at home with friends. It’s this everyday delivery that underpins the approach to Coriolanus.” Fiennes pauses for a moment, contemplating what he’s saying with an intensity that comes across in his screen persona. “But, but,” he adds as if to defend his craft, “there is still a discipline and a form and a requirement for phrasing – you can’t add ‘ums’ and ‘ahhs’ and break it up – but if you make it appear as naturalistic as possible on film, you can actually release it.”
The task of creating a stunning cinematic look and feel for Coriolanus was made easier with Fiennes’ choice of cinematographer – Barry Ackroyd – who shot many of Ken Loach’s films and who Fiennes had met on the set of The Hurt Locker (for which Ackroyd was nominated for an Academy Award). “I knew from issues that we had on The Hurt Locker that he was incredibly committed in difficult circumstances to work hard and fast, and I knew he would be on my side. I was learning a lot, especially what language to use to talk to a cinematographer.”
But at the heart of the film is Fiennes himself giving another characteristically intense and gripping performance. Coriolanus the man is updated from proud Roman warrior to a contemporary middle-European general from a privileged family, and a man who is unable to adapt to an era of democracy once the fighting ends. It was a transformation that Fiennes clearly relished, and he laughs at the suggestion that Coriolanus represents a man from another time. “I still think there are plenty of people in governments today who don’t want the democratic era.”