Theatre at Gainsborough Film Studios
1 June - 22 July 2000
is a developer's dream come true. Ralph Fiennes, 'that bloke from
Schindler's List,' in two of Shakespeare's historic tragedies, produced
by the very trendy Islington Almeida Theatre Company (who brought
us Kevin Spacey as Hickey in The Ice Man Cometh), inside Gainsborough
Studios - once home to our homegrown film prodigy Alfred Hitchcock.
Beseeching my fair
maids and lords, 'tis true, one can peruse a show flat whilst awaiting
the acquisition of further cultural insights...
I succumb to that most dread curse, Gritted Teeth Cynicism, I must
declare that in essence I see nothing wrong in using different spaces
to present The Bard - or any other play for that matter. Having
established that, motive and desire must always be discerned, as
with Shakespeare's characters. By converting Gainsborough Studios,
as by creating the Tate Modern, an old power station has been transformed.
The process is a testimony to the new cultural industries and to
urban regeneration - indeed, it was 'Invest in Hackney' that suggested
that the Almeida visit the site.
Britain once produced Things, today it seems that Britain produces
Culture. Performing Shakespeare in a disused film studio does not
exactly amount to 'Living on Thin Air,' to borrow the title of Charles
Leadbeater's celebrated book on the new economy. But Shakespeare
in Shoreditch is certainly a recipe that fulfills all the criteria
of 'new thinking' on cities and on culture. Is it a recipe for great
art though? ''Tis one thing to be tempted,' as Angelo tells Claudio
in Measure for Measure, but it is quite another to deliver.
conclusion you arrive at reading the official Shakespeare in Shoreditch
publication is how terrible Britain has always been at creating
a film industry. Not so with theatre, the Almeida retorts. To the
company's credit it has chosen two of the least performed and, some
would argue, most difficult of Shakespeare's plays for this project.
The Almeida has been consistent in its attempt to bring quality
performances of seminal texts, as well as providing a platform for
new talent and contemporary stars. It has a commendable track record
and its endeavour to push the envelope is to be cheered.
Richard II, who occupies an impressive green grass set by Paul Brown,
we are never far away from 'graves, worms and epitaphs'. There is
a hushed moment when Fiennes first appears as the King, following
which descent into betrayal (after time fighting away) is speedy.
Analogies have been drawn between the play's Henry Bolingbroke and
the real-life Earl of Essex: the latter failed in his attempt to
dethrone Elizabeth I, the former is successful, although his success
owes more to Richard's martyrdom than to any strengths of his own.
Bloom calls Richard 'a bad king and an interesting metaphysical
poet' (Shakespeare: The Invention of The Human, p249), and his journey
is handled well here. The remaining cast come across as slightly
diminished in comparison to Fiennes - except, that is, for Linus
Roache, who puts in a shining performance as Bolingbroke. With Richard
II, politics is corrupt and people entirely untrustworthy, ready
to steal your title in a moment. All around there are predators,
and no one is loyal. Which brings us to what may be the most poignant
of Shakespeare's works on the fallen warrior hero, Caius Marcius
Coriolanus. Here too it is tempting to infer the golden adage that
'power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.'
brochure quotes from very diverse players: Margaret Thatcher with
her famous 'Society? No such thing'; Jung is there; Mussolini meets
Machiavelli; Rousseau bizarrely rubs shoulders with David Hare.
Professor Anthony Clare, in his introduction, cites Freud as shedding
light on the fallen hero. One thing is for certain: despite the
erudition of the brochure, the Roman warrior who descends to the
level of a child when not on the battlefield is not captured in
all its tragedy and significance by this production.
the day I saw it, with stifling temperatures and an empty seat due
to a late chaperone let-down, was not indicative, but Coriolanus's
similarity to Rigsby from Rising Damp was bewildering. A pity, because
the character is one of Shakespeare's best: one moment the brave
warrior leader, the next moment fallen egotist tyrant with contempt
for all and sundry and a diminished adolescent reverence for his
mother. If Richard II is a counterpoint to Marlowe's Edward II,
as Jonathan Bate contends in his book The Genius of Shakespeare,
then surely Coriolanus is Shakespeare's most unabashed illustration
of politics administered by fools for dubious reasons. And yet we
have sympathy with this fool, a victim of his unconquerable circumstance.
is perhaps timely that in our atomised and anxious age of doubt
and disbelief, these two productions converge on the much-lauded
Shoreditch (bastion of innovation and of youth culture), with their
corresponding themes of superficial political expediency and the
inherent tendencies of flawed humanity. These productions' convergence
of marketing, publicity, press and profile (Tom Hanks arrived surreptitiously
for Coriolanus front of house seats) is a testimony to the nous
of the Almeida's Ian McDiarmid and Jonathan Kent. Altogether more
questionable is their success in retaining the high standard of
production that is their staple in Islington. But attempting these
difficult plays in such a unique environment is impressive enough.
in Shoreditch' has been a memorable experiment in London theatre
over the past few months.
by the staunchly independent and incredibly fashionable Almeida
Theatre, the run of Richard II and Coriolanus has brought a steady
succession of Londoners to the old Gainsborough film studios, despite
the fact that neither play is particularly hailed as Shakespeare's
finest. Giving Ralph Fiennes and Linus Roache lead parts no doubt
ensured healthy ticket sales, but there is something rather more
special about this production.
during Roman battles with the neighbouring Volscians, the Tragedy
of Coriolanus charts the downfall of the city's hero amidst a climate
of political tension between the plebeians and the elderly senate
consuls. The play opens in a public street, with a hungry mob demanding
a share of political power from the state. The high-minded but manipulative
consul succeed in containing the unrest through rhetorical speeches
and the introduction of tribunes to represent the masses.
the revered military hero Coriolanus, fresh from battle, does not
understand this pandering to the mob and is disgusted by the notion
that they are to be tolerated at all. When he is encouraged to take
a political role, his refusal to flatter the people of Rome turns
the city against him. Coriolanus' stoic virtues become vices in
the civic state and he is banished from the country that once loved
the soon-to-be-demolished Gainsborough studios, the darkened high
ceilings and rusty set lends this production a moodiness appropriate
to the drama. The makeshift scaffolding and wall-to-wall audience
gives one the feeling that one is sitting amongst the rabble as
the players entertain. Ralph Fiennes is brilliant as the proud Coriolanus,
initially mocking in his mimicry of the crowd, then crippled by
the burdens of civic duty towards the play's end.
are nice touches of tension on the stage between Coriolanus and
his foil, Aufidius, when they embrace like lovers in both battle
and in friendship. This relationship stresses that the hatred in
war begets the love between soldiers. Volumnia, the protagonists'
mother, is a powerful voice in the play and shows the metaphorical
connection between a mother's love for her son and a state's love
for its hero, both of which are subject to forces of the natural
world. Though the stage of the Gainsborough studios may soon be
dust, this remarkable production will no doubt be remembered for
years to come.