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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 344-345
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Coriolanus.By William Shakespeare. The Almeida Theatre Company at Gainesborough Studios, London. 7 July 2000.
Not since the nineteenth century have London theatregoers congregated in large numbers in the unfashionable East End district of Shoreditch. However, the Almeida company, in one of their more notable experiments, put Shoreditch briefly back on the theatrical map this past summer, staging two of Shakespeare's most politically complex plays, Coriolanus and Richard II, at the derelict, soon-to-be demolished Gainesborough Studios, a film studio known as the home of Hitchcock thrillers and costume melodramas.
In the case of Coriolanus, this setting was key. The stage was dominated by a looming stone wall riven by a fissure that came to symbolize the psychic and physical violence of the play. A text that opens with the threat of internal dissension breaking out into open rebellion was realized on a set suggesting the inevitability of destruction. That the entire theatrical space--including the makeshift auditorium in which the audience was seated--was soon to be knocked to the ground neatly underlined the instability of Coriolanus' Rome.
Fortunately, the set did not overwhelm the cast. Ralph Fiennes allowed his Coriolanus degrees of emotion and a greater subtlety than is often seen in the part. A warrior and aristocrat, Coriolanus spends much of the play angry, and there is a real danger that any production can degenerate into a formless rant. While the opening scenes here failed to impress, once Fiennes's Coriolanus returned heroically to Rome at the beginning of act 2, there was a nice, slow build to his great outburst of anger at the end of act 3. When Coriolanus finally let fly his rage at the plebeians ("You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate / As reek o'the rotten fens, [End Page 344] whose loves I prize / As the dead carcasses of unburied men / That do corrupt my air--I banish you") the moment was immensely satisfying.
Director Jonathan Kent took care not to tilt our sympathies too far towards Coriolanus. We felt the slow burn of his anger, but at the same time the anger and frustrations of the citizens were granted real weight. This more evenhanded approach gave the petition scene, in which Coriolanus must beg the citizens to support his consulship, a real energy. The people's legitimate desire for a voice was rebuffed by Coriolanus' intensely realized loathing of the theatrical spectacle, a loathing reinforced here by costuming--Fiennes's icily dignified Coriolanus was a virtual scarecrow in this scene, glowering under a silly, floppy hat. The divided sympathies thus encouraged in the audience suggested the conflicting impulses that would lead Rome toward potential annihilation.
The cast was uniformly strong, with one curious exception. Oliver Ford Davies displayed some great highs and lows as Menenius. Thrilled and boyish while Coriolanus rose as hero, he was Coriolanus' greatest fan (after his mother), so much so that he actually seemed perversely pleased when Coriolanus allied himself with Rome's enemies and threatened the city. He and Cominius (David Burke) painted an almost gleeful picture of Rome's impending destruction for their enemies, the people's tribunes: "you have done fair work!" However, the reality of that picture did not hit home for Menenius until he himself was spurned by Coriolanus in his attempts at peacemaking. This scene was handled admirably, and was genuinely wince-inducing, as the old man was literally given a kick in the pants for his troubles. Linus Roache's Tullus Aufidius, Coriolanus' direst enemy turned dearest ally, started strongly, convincing in his shifts of emotion, but grew somewhat fuzzy in his final reaction to Coriolanus' death. Usually either a moment of genuine emotion for Aufidius, or a politically motivated feigning of emotion, here his reaction to the death was unclear.
Perhaps the most important person in the play after the title character is Volumnia. Barbara Jefford made much of the apparent contradiction between Volumnia's ladylike propriety--the Thatcheresque hairdo was a nice touch--and her utter bloodthirstiness. The relish with which she...