August 2000Theatre
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Ralph Fiennes and Linus Roache

Shakespeare in Shoreditch
Almeida Theatre at Gainsborough Film Studios
1 June - 22 July 2000

Alan Miller


It 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...

Before 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.

Whereas 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.

The 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.

For 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.

Harold 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.'

The 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.

Perhaps 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.

It 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.


Munira Mirza

'Shakespeare in Shoreditch' has been a memorable experiment in London theatre over the past few months.

Produced 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.

Set 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.

However, 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 him.

In 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.

There 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.


 

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