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A CurtainUp London Review

By Lizzie Loveridge

It was a glittering night. The stars of London's stage were assembled to see Ralph Fiennes as Coriolanus but the production seemed to lack star quality. Fiennes performance was intense but I did not make that leap of credulity. It is difficult to put my finger on exactly what the shortcomings were. England's national theatre companies recently have chosen to field some of Shakespeare's plays in their smallest venue. We are now spoilt, accustomed to be closer to the actors and the Gainsborough seems like a vast cave of a place.

The wonderful turf on the stage for Richard II has been removed to leave a bare, hard floor but with a central area of glass brick which can be lit from below. The first problem is that in the opening scenes I could not hear all of what the rabble were saying. There seemed to be an echo on all but the clearest of voices and they speak their lines at such a pace. The rabble were weak, not just of voice but in number. The mere eight actors on the ninety foot stage don't make for a convincing crowd.

It may be that the part of Coriolanus does not give the actor the full emotional range. Director Jonathan Kent seems to be trying to show us the insecure child under the outward show of military bravery and intense pride. We see Fiennes proud and sneeringly sarcastic against the mob. Although he's covered in blood he does not make us recoil in horror. In fact, Barbara Jefford's bloodthirsty performance as Volumnia, the definitive mother with balls, is more chilling. Only at the end of the play, when Volumnia reduces her son to tears, do we see Coriolanus as the victim of his cruel mothering.

Oliver Ford Davies is complex as the crafty politician, Menenius Agrippa and Linus Roache gives a forceful, almost sinister performance, as Aufidius. However, Emilia Fox has little to do except snivel as Coriolanus' wife.

Modern dress is what is worn with the addition of a toga-like drape for senators. Coriolanus wears a sackcloth kaftan and a curious hessian sunhat in his ritual humbling in front of the Roman people as a part of the process of becoming a consul. The bare brick and ironwork of the old Metropolitan Railway power station forms a bleak backdrop, more disused industrial than historical. The brick fissure is accentuated when, just before the interval, the rain falling behind the glass turns to blood. Thunder and lightning are as realistic as any I've seen on stage. There is a splendid iron door which clanks up and down to allow access to Volscian cities. The sword fight between Coriolanus and Aufidius is memorably exciting.

For those unfamiliar with the plot: Caius Marcus, a proud Roman general, shows exceptional courage in a war against the Volscians and due to his valour the town of Corioli is taken. He receives the surname Coriolanus. It is proposed that he become a consul on his return to Rome but he refuses to pander to the masses, the citizens of Rome. The tribunes of the people forget the debt that Rome owes him and have him banished. Coriolanus joins forces with his long standing enemy, the Volscian general, Aufidius, and leads a Volscian army against Rome. Coriolanus' old friends are sent to propose peace terms but they fail. Finally Coriolanus' mother, wife and son plead for the city to be spared. Coriolanus gives way to his mother, knowing that by so doing he signs his own death warrant. He secures a treaty which favours the Volscians but on his return to Aufidius, he is accused of betraying the Volscians and Aufidius publicly kills Coriolanus.

This is not the most accessible of Shakespeare's tragedies. Whereas we can see the modern day parallels of Richard II and the inadequacy of royalty, Coriolanus' relevancy is more difficult to find. Yet there are similarities between the two plays and I can see why the Almeida paired them. Richard II's tragedy is that he is unable to function as anything but a king; Coriolanus' that he cannot function except as a soldier. Whereas Richard is an unsuccessful king, Coriolanus succeeds as a soldier, but even as a member of the military, his heroics are solitary. Neither man can compromise. Richard is perceived as overly weak, Coriolanus as overly strong. In some ways, this contrasting and comparing is more absorbing than the individual plays. However I shall long remember the Almeida's Shakespeare in Shoreditch season for the scale of its ambition.
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Jonathan Kent

Starring: Ralph Fiennes
With: Robert Swann, David Burke, Oliver Ford Davies, Barbara Jefford, Emilia Fox, Angela Down, Danielle King, Philip Dunbar, Roger Swaine, Alan David, Bernard Gallagher, Paul Moriarty, Sean Baker, Damian O'Hare, Stephen Finegold, Ed Waters, Paul Benzing, Marc Small, Linus Roache, John Bennett, Ian Barritt, Stephen Campbell Moore, Daid Fahn, Oliver Ryan.
Design: Paul Brown
Lighting Design: Mark Henderson
Sound Design: John A Leonard
Music: Jonathan Dove
Fights: William Hobbs
Running time: Three hours 15 minutes with an interval
The Almeida Theatre Company in association with HoriPro Inc. at the Gainsborough Studios, Poole Street, London N1
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking to August 5th 2000
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 14th June 2000 performance at The Gainsborough Studios, Poole Street, London N1.

ęCopyright 2000, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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