- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2001

With the same quiet ferocity he brings to the stage, actor Ralph Fiennes pleaded to keep Shakespeare relevant.

"Shakespeare is a huge force, and we must continually reevaluate this force," he told his enraptured audience at the Shakespeare Theater Will Awards Saturday night. "Theaters must be ruthless about investigating his contemporary quality. With enough conviction, it is possible to cut through to the heart."

As Mr. Fiennes does, and rather brilliantly.

For that accomplishment, the theater awarded the 38-year-old English stage and screen actor its William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theater at its annual gala. The event, which transformed the Library of Congress Jefferson Building into a glittering Elizabethan setting, raised $200,000 for acting school scholarships.

During a cocktail reception, actors in costumes from various Shakespeare plays sipped honey and mead and mingled with arts patrons, theater trustees and, of course, the two award winners of the evening, Mr. Fiennes and actor Richard Thomas. Mr. Thomas won the Millennium Recognition Award.

Dinner, which followed the awards presentation, was heavy enough to have delighted Henry VIIIs palate. Served banquet style at long tables set up on all four sides of the mezzanine, guests nibbled on pates, smoked fish, dried and fresh fruits and various cheeses before being presented with a hearty crown roast of lamb that was followed by sticky toffee pudding with whipped cream.

There was much speculation about Mr. Fiennes new movie, "Spider," and whether the Shakespeare Theatre might eventually be able to lure him to perform in one of its productions. Mr. Fiennes admitted there were still "masses" of Shakespearean roles he yearns to play, especially "Much Ado About Nothing" (Benedick) and "A Winters Tale" (Leontes). The theaters artistic director, Michael Kahn said mysteriously later that there is "one other that we talk about."

Not surprisingly, Mr. Fiennes raffishly spiked hair and two-day stubble drew many admiring glances from female admirers as he charmed guests in the receiving line.

Venture capitalist Adam Waldman beat a hasty retreat for the bar after his wife, Ashley Allen, commented, "Oh, you have to do your hair like his. Ask him what gel he uses."

Other guests, including National Endowment for the Humanities chief William Ivey and arts patron Jaylee Mead reveled in the celebration of what Mr. Ivey termed, "the unique contribution of William Shakespeare to our cultural heritage."

The hour-long program in the Coolidge Auditorium downstairs, however, proved to be the evenings highlight.

Two students from regional high schools performed scenes from "Richard II" as part of the partnership the theater company has developed to improve the exposure of local high school students to the Bards works.

Mr. Kahn spoke about the importance of sustaining interest in the witty, profound and sometimes bawdy writer.

"My [Russian] mother read me Shakespeare every night," he said. "She cut out the dirty parts of the Bible, but she didnt know where they were in Shakespeare."

"To tell the truth, I didnt know either."

Mr. Kahn also praised Mr. Thomas portrayal of Richard II at his theater in 1993, a performance that the New York Times critic said "will change the way we look at Richard II forever."

And then it was Mr. Fiennes turn.

"It is his heart that makes him an artist," wrote actress Julianne Moore, Mr. Fiennes co-star in "The End of the Affair," in a note read by British Ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer.

"He inhabits the characters and gives them humanity. He exemplifies every quality that is [this] award."

In his short acceptance speech, before reading a passage from "Hamlet," he spoke about the importance of classical theater.

"It should provoke us, make us laugh and make us cry," he said.

Most of all, it should "leave us "changed."

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