January 2001 TheaterPro.Com

Must See: London

Ralph Fiennes is giving what must be the virtuoso Shakespeare performance of the new millennium so far: on Saturdays through August 5 he plays Coriolanus at the matinee and Richard II at the evening performance at the Gainsborough Studio Theatre, a vast auditorium erected in the shell of Hitchcock’s old movie studio in Shoreditch. In contrast to the large cast at Gainsborough, "Stones in his Pockets" is a delightful comedy that makes its point with only two actors who take on multiple roles.

The two Shakespeare plays and the two heroes could not be more different: "Richard II" is the earlier, a lyrical work written around the time of "Romeo and Juliet" and based on the history of the Wars of the Roses as recorded by two Elizabethan historians. "Coriolanus" is a later work, based on the Roman history by Plutarch , translated by Thomas North, with involved, compressed imagery, interrupted rhythm, and varied meter. Both demonstrate a favorite Elizabethan theme: the hero’s fall from a position of power, the fall his own responsibility because of a flawed character and faulty judgment.

As soon as Fiennes’ Richard enters, splendidly dressed in contrast to the sober costumes surrounding him, you sense that he is too proud; in a procession to music, he is carried in, proudly seated high on a throne, but once set down, his voice and facial and hand movements betray a weak ruler. As two challengers sturdily face each other, Richard never looks directly at either, although he turns his head first towards one and then the other, as if impatient that someone other than himself has the spotlight. As he emphasizes his plea (ignored) that they give up their challenge, his hand, intended as support to his argument, is graceful but indecisive.

In the presence of dying Gaunt, who with his last gasp predicts that England, "this blessed isle" will collapse unless Richard mend his wild ways, Fiennes is literally a "skipping king." In defiance, he prances over to his cohorts in "sinful ways" and embraces them, sticking out his tongue at Gaunt. That Fiennes keeps this under control, daringly going to the edge, but not over it, is to his credit. In this scene Richard makes his fatal decision, to seize the possessions of Gaunt to finance his invasion of Ireland so that he, Richard, can play a war hero. It is inevitable that Gaunt’s son Bolingbroke will return, with troops to back him up, to claim his seized inheritance and, supported by the nobles, the crown itself.

When Richard returns from Ireland to find he is deserted by his soldiers, by the public, and by the mighty nobles led by Northumberland, Fiennes’ very posture suggests the defeat to come. Wearing a "sea robe" over his glittering coat, he thrashes about the large, grass-covered stage as if seeking shelter and finding none, finally throwing himself upon the earth, which he "salutes," suggesting in the first of his wild images that should his enemies pluck a flower, the earth present them instead with a stinging nettle. In the series of lyrical outbursts that follow in this scene, Fiennes modulates his voice and its rhythms to bring out both Richard’s desperation and his theatrics, almost as if he finds enjoyment in exploring and expressing the depths of his sorrow. The "hollow crown" speech is the high point of the scene, seemingly spontaneous and delivered with phrasing and modulation that renders its complex imagery with complete clarity.

Jonathan Kent’s direction recognizes that the character of Richard is best appreciated when set against its foil, Bolingbroke, and this is stressed in a variety of ways. First, for the role he has cast Linus Roache, whom viewers may remember for his sensitive portrayal of the journalist love-interest in the film of Henry James’s "The Wings of the Dove." Next, taking his cue from the text, where Bolingbroke is termed "silent," he not only speaks little but he moves hardly at all, so his position of statue-like strength is a contrast to Richard’s constant movement one way and then another, like his undetermined mind. Bolingbroke wears working black throughout, even when he is king; Richard in the early scenes sets the one decorative fashion note. Bolingbroke’s tone, as dictated by the text, is almost flat, and sometimes it is wry as in the scene he himself describes as a comedy, when the Duchess of York, in an excellent portrayal by Barbara Jefford, pleads for her traitorous son Aumerle. Roache is to be commended for restraining the character and not playing for sympathy.

The climactic scene of the deposition is especially effective in its staging, with an emotional Richard on one side of the crown and on the other, Bolingbroke saying little and moving hardly at all. When tearful Richard regards himself in the mirror, which he then shatters as he is shattered, sympathy turns to him. Where we earlier perhaps shared Northumberland’s impatience with Richard’s antics and were relieved when he was replaced by the dependable Bolingbroke, crowned King Henry IV, now we pity Richard.

There is more pity to come in the scene of Richard’s death in prison. Stooped, barefoot, half naked, clutching a blanket, Fiennes’ Richard cowers and hides his face when a former groom of his stable visits him. Richard’s love of language now serves him well as in soliloquy he attempts to "hammer out" in his brain a way to "people" his lonely cell. In his new book, Shakespeare’s Language, Frank Kermode points out what a difficult passage this is to understand. It is a tribute to Fiennes that he makes it absolutely clear, as well as effective. The final scene reminds us of the "falls of princes" as spotlit from above, the corpse of Richard, who entered carried high in splendor at the beginning, now lies low.

"Coriolanus" is a definitive production of Shakespeare’s tragedy of the hero who wins glory for Rome and for himself, only to be brought down by his own pride and anger. Coriolanus is a difficult role, a character who can be unsympathetic, whose arrogance must be balanced with his courage and honesty. A natural patrician, he has nothing but disdain for the working men of Rome, cowards who cannot understand his dedication to bravery in battle, who just want to get on with their trades, but who are easily swayed by their wily government representatives, the Tribunes. One moment the crowd cheers him for winning a war only to condemn him the next because he lacks humility.

Fiennes convinces us of both the failings and the virtues of Coriolanus. With a wide range of vocal, facial and physical expressions, he is a master of the snarl as he confronts the mob, and of sensitivity as he tries to evade his mother’s demands that he seek public office. He is soft-voiced, introspective and modest as he squirms at the public adulation, standing tense and withdrawn into himself; as buttoned up as his non-period jacket. When he displays his bravery, shouting as he attacks the town of Corioli and lunging into fierce swordplay with his rival and enemy Aufidius, we understand the adulation of the women of the town (described by a Tribune) for his heroics and "graceful posture." His shoulders squared, his voice dripping with contempt, he rages against the plebeians to whom the Senate has denied rations of wheat because they refused to fight for Rome. The workers’ revenge is to vote against Coriolanus for the post of Consul, and egged on by the Tribunes, they chant for his banishment.

In Shakespeare’s fullest portrayal of a mother-son relationship, Barbara Jefford expertly interprets Volumnia, who has raised Coriolanus with one virtue only, to the exclusion of all others: bravery in battle. She sends him to war at a tender age and she has gloried ever since in his courage, marked by the wounds he has received. In her stance as she enacts how he behaves in battle, Ms. Jefford makes clear that Volumnia should like to have attained the glory herself, but being a woman she can only revel in her son’s acclimation, as he fulfills her fantasy ("fancy"). As he returns triumphant from defeating the Volsces at Corioli and is honored with the name of Coriolanus, she is in ecstasy as she hails him as godlike. In contrast, as crowds cheer and confetti rains down on him, Fiennes’ facial expression tells all: he wishes he were somewhere else.

He doesn’t want her new career choice for him - that of Consul - but agrees to (literally) stand for the office, wearing a gown of humility and asking the people for their voices (votes). His honesty with the plebes may be a fresh approach to seeking political office, as he reveals his low opinion of them, but it is hardly designed to win votes, then as now (See the movie "Bulworth").

When they grant him another chance to address them, his mother takes over. She coaches him, demonstrating exactly how he should play his part as she argues that "policy" can be just as effective in the market place as on the battlefield. The text suggests an Oedipal attachment, and Ms. Jefford makes the most of it in this scene. Her hands move all over his body -- his arms, his legs -- as she tells him, " I am in this/ Your wife, your son, these Senators..." (Is this a Freudian slip? Freud says Shakespeare invented the slip in a line of Portia’s to Bassanio in "The Merchant of Venice.") In her first scene, Volumnia upbraids her daughter-in-law for fearing Coriolanus may be wounded: "If my son were my husband," she says, she would prefer hearing of his bravery in battle to their making love in bed. To put an end to his mother’s "chiding," Coriolanus agrees to again present himself as a humble petitioner for votes. But his temper and his arrogance defeat him, and he is banished from Rome.

Wandering in the "world elsewhere," he turns up in rags at the home of his sworn foe, Aufidius, who heads Rome’s enemies, the Volsces. Here Fiennes’ stance and voice vary again, as he portrays both the abject beggar and, under the rags, the noble hero. In revenge against those who banished him, he will join with Aufidius in attacking Rome. Linus Roache as the Volscian leader delivers the third outstanding performance in this production. Both his admiration for and his envy of Coriolanus are evident as he welcomes his former foe, yet reveals that Aufidius is not a man to be trusted.

Volumnia’s longest and most important speech is her plea to Coriolanus not to invade Rome but to broker with the Volscians a mutual peace with honor. Although at first he is adamant, during her 70-line speech Fiennes perceptively changes as we see the effect she is having upon him, until finally, weeping, he agrees not to invade Rome. The stage direction to take her hand is Shakespeare’s, but the way Fiennes does it is his own, as he, looking away, turns his body and reaches for her hand as she is departing, believing her plea has failed. Falling to the floor may be excessive, but Fiennes brings it off as he tells her, "You have won a happy victory to Rome/ But for your son - believe it: O believe it--/ Most dangerously you have with him prevailed,/If not most mortal [fatal] to him."

It remains only for the Volscians to declare him a traitor, just as the Romans did earlier. Denied a final fight with Aufidius in which Coriolanus could display his courage, he is pinioned by Volsces, as Aufidius, in a rage, stabs him to death.

Jonathan Kent as director deserves much credit, for this is a difficult play to stage. His "Shakespeare full out" approach here is a welcome change from the many gimmicky, mumbling productions prevalent today, where actors, as at the new Globe, stress the wrong word in a line, disregarding the iambic pentameter and revealing that they themselves do not understand what they are saying. Here, almost all the speeches, except by Bernard Gallagher, are clear and understandable, well spoken and preserving the rhythm and sense of the lines.

The many stage effects are appropriate on this huge stage, its many entrances and exits inventively used. Openings in the back brick wall serve as windows and doors, entrances are by stairs or other openings at either side, and there is a balcony-like upper stage. A long cleft in the center of the brick wall is ingeniously used, for thunder and flames in the battle scene, or a mirror of the swordplay with Aufidius. A large opaque glass square in the middle of the stage floor is lit from below for interior scenes. At stage right, a large metal curtain clangs down as the gates of Corioli, or opened, represents an arch for a triumphal entry.

Shakespeare’s audience would have loved the staging of the battle at Corioli, with explosions, smoke, fire, and lamentations, not to mention the hero, alone, rushing through the city gates that ring shut behind him. Another high point is the extended sword fight between Coriolanus and Aufidius, using not only swords, but arms, legs, and heads as well The costumes are non-period, with uniforms differentiated by colors, dark green for the Romans, red for the Volsces. The Roman Senators drape a part-toga shawl over their suits, very much like the single contemporary illustration we have of a Shakespeare play - the Roman "Titus Andronicus" (Reproduced in my book, Pageantry on the Shakespearean Stage.) There is no set and props are limited to stools and one table.

The box-office is at the Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, Islington, London, N1 1TA, phone 020 7359 4404. The Gainsborough is at Poole Street and New North Road in Shoreditch. For the schedule of performances, see the Almeida website at www.almeida.co.uk

In the West End of London, Marie Jones’ serious comedy "Stones in his Pockets" is enacted against a never changing backdrop of clouds, fronted by a lineup of shoes. Otherwise the stage is bare except for a couple of chairs and a trunk which also serves as a wall over which children peer at a movie being filmed. An American company arrives in an Irish village to film a script which sounds like all the Irish romantic movies ever to have been perpetrated by Hollywood. There are turf-cutting local townsmen, village celebrants at a wedding between the rich heiress of the manor and her groom, who is of course a poor local lad who restores their land to the villagers. In addition to these roles, including the village’s oldest extra, are Charlie and Jake, two losers who carry the plot forward. The invaders from movieland include a starlet, her John Wayne-type bodyguard, a haughty British director, and his fluttery assistant who, with his burly lover, controls the band of Irish extras hired for local color at forty pounds (about $65) a day. All these roles, including children, are played by two talented actors, Sean Campion and Conleth Hill, who also enact Jake and Charlie respectively.

Playwright Jones combines in her tightly-woven plot comedy that turns inside out stereotypical attitudes towards the Irish, satire of movies and their stars, music and dance (intricate patterned folk dance performed by the cast of two as whole groups of dancers), and serious commentary on the damage done to the weak by the Hollywood dream. ********Read more on Marie in "Spotlight on Women."**********

The actors assume their role changes with lightning speed, from pouting, hypocritical starlet (Mr.Conlon) and a dope-crazed young man (Mr. Campion) who pursues her, only to be ejected by her bodyguard (Mr. Conlon) with fatal results. When the extras ask to take the afternoon off to attend the funeral, the movie makers reject their pleas, with the excuse that filming is costing them a quarter of a million dollars a day. "Then how come we are getting only forty pounds a day?" asks the bent, ancient local (Mr. Campion), whose one claim to fame is that he was an extra in "The Quiet Man." They do go to the funeral, on the condition that no one drinks. The starlet attends, sending flowers and, heavily veiled, making a speech about the man she never knew but whose humiliation by her bodyguard has led to his suicide. A flashback reveals the boy as a child, peering excitedly over a wall at an earlier filming, his immersion in the impossible dreams perpetrated by the movies leading him to the dope that promised realization. The ending is as ingenious is the conception of this play which has been cheered in Dublin, Belfast, and Edinburgh.((New Ambassadors, West St., WC2H 9ND, phone 020-7369-1761.)

TheaterPro.Com Article reprinted from TheaterPro.Com and was written by Alice Griffin. This article first appeared in July 2001 as the "Must See: London" article for the month. Click on the image to see this month's article.

Reprinted for convenience and with permission. No copyright infringements on TheaterPro.Com or Alice Griffin are intended.

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