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A CurtainUp Review
by Les Gutman
We have some need to continually prove to ourselves the enduring relevance of Shakespeare. So with Coriolanus, it is satisfying to point out the statements it makes about soldiers who are catapulted by their military bravery into the political arena, about the contempt with which some politicians hold the masses, about the foibles of heeding those masses, and so on. But Coriolanus, the man, is not Eisenhower or Colin Powell, nor Richard Nixon nor Bill Clinton, Al Gore or George W. Bush, and Coriolanus, the play, is not about all that. Here we have the story of a mother and a son, and as Freud has now assured us, everything else is just elaborate window dressing.
Jonathan Kent's invigorating staging, brought to BAM in repertory with Richard II, eschews many of the stereotypes we anticipate, and in doing so delivers a riveting, if hideous, family portrait that takes us straight to the play's tragic core. If Ralph Fiennes seems an obvious candidate to portray Richard II, his stature and his temperament create for us a threshold resistance to his Coriolanus. He is not our notion of a warrior who'd do battle alone before he'd admit defeat. But here we have him and, lo and behold, we discover what Menenius Agrippa (Oliver Ford Davies) meant when he said of Coriolanus: "his nature is too noble for the world".
Coriolanus does not come to soldiering by pedigree. He has no father to teach him the art of war. His martial instincts, instead, have a perverse maternal provenance. Mr. Fiennes shows us that this is not a distinction without a difference. Instead of a muscular bully, we have a contemptuous, obstinate brat. Fiennes is the grown-up runt whose self-perceived inadequacies trigger both his excessive bravery and his scorn of others. The words "valor" and "pride" are bandied about in describing the character of Coriolanus. We now know that they are far too simplistic.
As we see Fiennes' manifestation of the toxic chemistry that Coriolanus sucked from his mother's breast (by her own boastful admission), we are intrigued to look to Barbara Jefford for the clues to its composition. And we find them. Here, too, the predictable one-dimensional stereotype -- a gorgon -- is replaced by a more complex beast. Ms. Jefford does not let Volumnia entertain us with an exaggerated fire-breathing witch. Instead we get a depraved, ruthless but calculating power -- a characterization which renders her final scene with her son bone-chilling and emotionally excruciating. It's a moment of tragic poignancy in a play that's not possessed of a great many.
Beyond these two stellar performances, most of the rest pale. The Menenius of Oliver Ford Davies is a notable exception: a joyous if foolishly naive conciliator. This is not to suggest that the performances are not generally exceptionally strong, and that a few, fastidiously directed by Mr. Kent, are not wonderful. Indeed, it is in the details that Kent's work is most brilliant, as when we watch the crumbing faces of the Senators during Coliolanus' "undoing" before the people. The disappointments are few: Linus Roache's Aufidius is insignificant, but perhaps in this conception it must be so. (Roache, second to Fiennes in starpower, certainly does not show himself to be able to keep up with his towering technical prowess.) Emilia Fox's Virgilia (the wife of Coriolanus), similarly, has no chance of holding her own vis-a-vis Volumnia, nor can she hold a candle to Ms. Jefford.
The design elements of this production follow those in London, although some of the negative aspects of the vast venue in which the show was played there have been neutralized here. Lighting and a bare minimum of adornments are used successfully to suggest location, and Jonathan Kent never lets us get lost. Paul Brown's costumes don't seem to have much of a point -- an eclectic mix of periods are suggested, from 20th Century working class garb for the citizens to something along the lines of Helmut Lang for the patricians. Ms. Jefford has been provided a particularly uncomfortable looking dress that she wears every time she appears onstage. That she is able to negotiate her paces without tripping in it makes her performance all the more impressive.
It would take quite a stretch to argue that Coriolanus ought to be put on a pedestal with Shakespeare's great tragedies. (G. B. Shaw dubbed it "the greatest of Shakespeare's comedies"). And although there are fascinating reasons to pair it with Richard II, the sheer beauty of the latter's poetry makes the flatness of Coriolanus all the more noticeable. Still, the Almeida Theatre has distilled from it a spirit and an intensity that makes this production more than worthwhile, while its star has made it a pleasure.
CurtainUp's review of Coriolanus in London and the Berkshires
CurtainUp's review of Richard II at BAM