Linus Roache and Ralph Fiennes star at BAM inthe Almeida Theatre Company's productions ofShakespeare's Coriolanus and Richard II
Linus Roache and Ralph Fiennes star at BAM in
the Almeida Theatre Company’s productions of
Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and Richard II

If Coriolanus had decided to do what George W. Bush has vowed–to go out and ask the “real people” for their votes–William Shakespeare wouldn’t have had much call to write Coriolanus. But since the valiant but haughty military leader considered the hoi-polloi too fickle and feckless to deserve his respect, Shakespeare got his play. You see, the historical Coriolanus refused to importune his fellow Romans when such an act of humility was expected of him were he to be elevated to consul.

At this moment in our new century, we don’t know how Governor Bush’s newest tactic will reward him. But we do know–because first Plutarch and then Shakespeare have told us–that Coriolanus’ adamant stand gained him only hatred, banishment and, eventually, death. His monumental disdain lies at the heart of the cold but compelling play that bears his name. (Actually, he was Caius Martius, called Coriolanus after his gallant capture of Corioli.)

Coriolanus’ flinty regard is manifested strikingly in Ralph Fiennes interpretation, which is the occasion for this trans-Atlantic revival of the Bard’s tragedy. (That is, it’s categorized as a tragedy by most analysts; George Bernard Shaw, on the other hand, called it “the greatest of Shakespeare’s comedies.” But he was undoubtedly just trying to get attention.) Fiennes, whose film performances are frequently marked by the vulnerability he conveys with his limpid eyes, hardens himself thoroughly for this role. His take on Coriolanus, a warrior and patrician for whom the word “compromise” has no meaning, is all hard glances, sustained sneers, and ramrod-straight posture.

Though some have quarreled with Fiennes’ approach, it seems impeccable to this reviewer. Since he’s playing a man who refuses to reveal anything other than what he wants to reveal, who feels it wise to keep his own council (since it’s the only council on which he can rely), and who refuses to thaw, it makes complete sense that he shows Coriolanus to be a thick-skinned, impenetrable man–severely bloodied, but totally unbowed. The nuances in Fiennes’ portrayal aren’t in what he lets on about Coriolanus, but in the many ways he keeps the character’s guard raised. This stratagem intensifies the painful pivotal moment when he does allow his resolve to crack; it’s that instant when, having joined his city-state’s enemies and taken arms against his own people, he lets his mother, Volumnia (Barbara Jefford), dissuade him from his calculated decision and thereby guarantee his end.

Although Shakespeare dealt with politics in many of his plays, often more covertly than overtly, it’s not surprising that realpolitik is the very stuff of Coriolanus. It’s the inability to exercise political finesse–not necessarily as we recognize that concept in a contemporary democracy–that undoes Coriolanus. In Shakespeare’s narrative, the imperious hero has only to mollify a citizenry complaining about the deprivations they’ve been enduring in order to win them over. Coriolanus isn’t disposed to do that, however; and neither is Volumnia, who explains that she’d rather have her son victorious in battle than triumphant in any domestic situation. As his mother’s boy, Coriolanus at first mocks the people by cynically importuning them, then alienates them by flouting their demands. Banished for his honesty, or foolhardiness, he joins forces with longtime foe Tullus Aufidius (Linus Roache) and the Volscis, thinking to bring Rome to heel. Volumnia, however, knows how to get around her son and does so, winning him back to attempt a peace treaty with the Aufidius. The Volsci chief executive accedes to this only after joining with his consuls in killing the turncoat Coriolanus.

In Jonathan Kent’s Edwardian suits-cum-togas production, Aufidius slays Coriolanus singlehandedly–a tidy enough directorial decision–and Kent shepherds the rest of the play in similar, tidy manner. “Shepherd” isn’t a bad word to apply to a script about manipulation–though that manipulation more often takes the form of verbal persuasion than manual means. Indeed, Coriolanus begins with Menenius (Oliver Ford Davies), the most conciliatory Roman, using a parable about feuding body parts to calm a group of troublemakers. And it goes on from there, with Shakespeare deploying some of his most beautifully textured language as characters either succeed or fail at bringing each other around to this or that point of view.

As background to the many debates, Kent and designer Paul Brown have kept the stage relatively uncluttered, placing much of the action on a translucent rectangle in the floor, between metal doors and platforms, and beneath a metal catwalk. Others on the creative team have worked seamlessly, not least among them fight director William Hobbs; the clanging first-act swordplay between passionate foes Coriolanus and Aufidius is one of the production highlights. (It’s hard to imagine that Fiennes and Roache haven’t sustained some injuries during the run. Possibly, Fiennes’ stiff-necked stride isn’t entirely an actor’s affectation.) It might be mentioned that Kent originally staged this Almeida Theatre Company production in London’s skedded-for-demolition Gainsborough Studios, where Alfred Hitchcock spent his pre-Hollywood career. The performing area there is extremely wide, and the architectural amenities, including a fissure in an upstage brick wall, lent themselves to stunning effects–particularly in the smoke-filled battle scenes–that have been lost in the transfer to the Harvey Theater at BAM.

The actors who have made the crossing with Fiennes from North London’s Almeida all give rich accounts of their roles, possibly even more finely-honed now that they’ve been performing them for a number of months. Slim, compact Roache, in particular, has found many more sides to a warlord both sure and unsure of his standing and, as a result, as implacable as his major competitor yet more aware of his potential failings. In her depiction of Volumnia, Jefford has all the grace and menace of a threatened tigress. She is an uncommonly handsome woman, reminiscent in some ways of Katherine Cornell, and when she and Fiennes–who seems to carry his own Hurrell lighting with him–stand together, Coriolanus becomes a drama about the arrogance of beauty. Also doing themselves proud are Davies, David Burke as aging warrior Cominus, Emilia Fox as docile wife Virgilia, and Alan David and Bernard Gallagher as two conniving tribunes.

Shakespeare might have delineated the motives of this latter duo with more care, but their self-involved machinations prompt a few thoughts about 17th century notions of a democratic state and the behavior expected from its political leaders. The Bard sides ideologically with no one while, at the same time, chiding individuals (notably, his title character) for their lapses. Though he sympathizes with the citizens’ plight, he has no affection for their vacillations, depicting them along the lines of the Julius Caesar mob that Brutus and then Marc Antony mold so easily. (Likewise, the Coriolanus-Volumnia pairing plays like a variation on the mother-son relationship in Hamlet, with its oft-noted Oedipal implications.)

Over time, various interpretations of Coriolanus have been used to champion or denigrate highly disparate forms of government. Shakespeare, however, can’t be said to have it in mind to praise or condemn outright either the patrician or the man in the street. He wanted to suggest, as he did throughout his sumptuous works, that populations aren’t guided by systems, but by individuals. And if people come on hard times, the fault–as Cassius observes to Brutus–lies not in our stars, but in ourselves. The Ralph Fiennes-Jonathan Kent treatment of Coriolanus does a commendable job of pointing out this difficult reality.

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