Time Out Magazine - UK (1/27/99)


Fiennes Romance

by Brian Case

Brother of the (slightly) more famous Ralph, Joseph Fiennes plays the bearded Bard himself in 'Shakespeare In Love'. Brian Case sharpens his quill and declaims, fruitily.

Where there's a Will....
Never mind Ralph. In the Stoppard-penned 'Shakespeare In Love', his brother, Joseph Fiennes, takes on the biggest role of all -- the Man of the Millennium himself. And luckily for the actor, 'once Will got an erection, his genius quotient soars!'

'They gave this cat five cents' worth of ink and a nickel's worth of paper and he sat down and he wrote up such a breeze, WHAM! -- Everybody got off! Period. He was a hard, tight, tough cat. Pen in hand, he was a Mutha Superior.' ~~'Willie the Shake' by Lord Buckley

Well, they've finally stopped asking him about his brother. Resembling one of Nicholas Hilliard's beautiful Elizabethan miniatures of swains with sonnets, Joseph Fiennes played Robert Dudley opposite Cate Blanchett's Queen in 'Elizabeth' and, pitching woo at Gwyneth Paltrow's Viola, is the Bard himself in 'Shakespeare In Love'. Young Joe's time in the sun has arrived. Even Variety has come 'round, having earlier written him off as "looking like he's auditioning for a deoderant commercial' -- in fact, he was Marks & Spencer's summer menswear model in 1997, besides playing in 'Troilus and Cressida' and 'As You Like It' at the RSC. What Baz Luhrmann did for Leonardo Di Caprio in 'Romeo and Juliet', John 'Mrs Brown' Madden does for Fiennes here -- with help from the chemistry in the clinches with Gwyneth Paltrow.

'I don't know what chemistry means,' says the actor. Gwyneth's gorgeous, astounding, and as actors we get on really well, but that's no guarantee that anything special is going to translate, so I think it's the luck of the draw really. It just happens. A lot of people have said it looks pretty good. If you're lucky enough to be in the hands of John Madden and Tom Stoppard's script, they're giving you a platform and manoeuvring you around the geography of it, and you just have to hit the marks. I always said to John that my great worry was that here was a love story that had to parallel and be just as potent as one of the greatest love stories in all literature. How do you do that with a film? You can't You're saying that "Romeo and Juliet" was born out of this love story. Christ! The heat is going to have to be at boiling point for these two all the time.' The intensity of their love led Shakespeare into fluid blank verse for the first time, breaking free of courtly verse and away from the sonnet form. 'In terms of the play, their passion is self-destructive. It can't survive. The heat is too much, it's terrifying. There's an electric volt between the two of them. They couldn't span out over six months like that.'

Like Luhrmann, Fiennes wasn't bothered about revamping a classic. 'Shakespeare is there to be ripped apart. I think he can survive any form of positive reinterpretation. I've been in productions and seen others, and no matter what you do, he still wins through. If we can get a younger audience just to feel this writing, then that's brilliant.'

The film is set in 1593, a time of intense rivalry between London theatres like Henslowe's The Rose and Burbage's The Curtain, and between playwrights Shakespeare, Thomas Kyd, Robert Greene and particularly Christopher Marlowe. Shakespeare's rise is resented -- Greene described him as 'an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger's hear wrapped in a Player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you... in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country' -- but the Bard has writer's block and both theatre are threatened with closure by the plague and the Puritans. He needs a lover affair to kickstart his motor.

'Once he's got an erection, his genius quotient soars!' laughs the actor. This is pretty much the thesis behind Anthony Burgesse's novel, 'Nothing Like the Sun', in which Shakespeare dips wick and quill symbiotically. 'Burgess is great!' whoops Fiennes. 'What's brilliant is he invents the world of Shakespeare so that you really feel the vibe! Burgess and Stoppard -- there are very few writers who can tackle the myth and take on board the man. I was catching up with a severe lack of education. I love to research, but the more I did, the less I knew. For every expert there is on Shakespeare, there's another who cancels his theory out. There are endless seductive theories, but at the end of the day what we've got is his work.'

He also read Charles Nicholl's 'The Reckoning', and investigation into the death of Christopher Marlowe in a Deptford dalehouse. 'A reckoning in a small room. Actually, and Elizabethan meaning for a reckoning was a wank. Spirit, I think, is their word for semen. Read Sonnet 129: "Which is th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame/Is lust in action..." We miss so many of the plays on words.' The fact that 'Romeo and Juliet' is saturated with language games, multiple puns, paradoxes and oxymorons is not lost upon Stoppard.

Happily for Fiennes, Shakespeare was no solitary garret genius but a worker within an acting company. 'I remember my mother, who was a novelist, saying how isolating it was to shut the door on the family, how distressing at times.' She was Jennifer Lash, his father a photographer, and Joe was the youngest of six children, including Ralph. 'Today, we don't have a world of poets, playwrights and painters who talk together, that cafe lifestyle. Shakespeare's social world would've been hot and Spanish and Italian and a wonderfully sexy period to be alive in. Well, we were fucked by the Victorians. As a playwright like Shakespeare, you're affected by other people's ideas. For him to be in a world of players who were probably typecast -- that one plays the lover or the young boy/girl and another the nurse -- they probably wrote around their personalities and dynamics. There is a theory that none of them read the whole play. Shakespeare just gave them their parts and their cue line, and they walked on stage and did their bit. He was bashing outnseveral at the same time, and they didn't run for months or a year like the RSC or the National.'

Realistically, we see the screen Shakespeare complaining about audiences coughing -- 'my usual bronchial bunch out there'. 'Oh yeah -- I've been there, don't worry,' says Fiennes. 'I worked on stage with an actor who actually stopped the show because of the bronchials. He said, "Listen, it's hard enough for us, but if you're going to cough that much, piss off." If you stop a live performance like that, the audience is reminded that it's live, and there's a gasp, an intake of breath that really brings the energy up. It was really electric. Of course, you have to watch you don't dry two pages on, though.' To the coughing, recent research adds the cracking of nuts, believed to repel the plague-carrying rats that infested the playhouses.

In the film we watch Shakespeare's ears prick up when a Puritan denounces the two theatre -- 'A plague on both your houses' -- to file the phrase away for the Montagues and Capulets. For Elizabethans, genius resided not in originality but in the 'lively turning' of familiar material. Nearly all of Shakespeare's plays were reworkings. The genius lay in the embellishment. He stole, and was protean. Borges described him as 'many and no one'.

'I love Tom Stoppard's idea of him plagiarising. Copyright laws hadn't begun, so it was a great idea to steal. But who doesn't? Consciously or subconciously. I'm plagiarising, borrowing and manipulating information from all over. Nothing is holy. I see him like a leech, a reporter of human frailty of his time. Stoppard's script is a homage to Shakespeare, and to his methods. It uses some of his themes -- cross-dressing and hidden identity, for example. I thought: Fuck it, he's a hustler. He's a gypsy, he's a wheeler-dealer in prolifically unstable period when Elizabeth had reached the end of her reign and things were falling apart. In terms of of culture, it's on the crest of the Renaissance and a very competitive environment. He plays people off against each other, exploits them because he's just trying to survive and pay the rent. I saw him as a journalist who needs good copy, and although his love for Viola is profound and real, it's copy for him. It's the fuel. He's a leech, sucking the blood out of this person to feed his brain.'

And Fiennes' Bard is superstitious, rubbing the quill between his palms, spinning around and spitting on the floor. Above all, though, he's inky. "I did all the writing myself. I learned from a calligraphy person in the art department, and we studied his signature. Jesus! He must've gone through how many geese I would not know! You have to re-sharpen the quill after a page of writing, and if you're in the middle of a thought, you have to be deft with the knife. It's quite laborious if you don't know how to do it. There's a skill and a knack to getting a really sharp quill. I was covered with ink. He must have been! I said to the make-up people: "Let's keep that in. He's a wordsmith -- that's what he is!"'


© 1998-2000 Joy of Joseph Fiennes