All entries for January 2012

January 22, 2012

Coriolanus @ The Broadway Cinema, Nottingham

The best thing about the poster for Ralph Fiennes's new film of Coriolanus (and his directorial debut) is the contrast between the streams of red blood and those ice-cold eyes. In a single image we see the entire film - a steady, chilling gaze framed by horrific images and the messy reality of war.

Coriolanus poster

For those of us who saw it, it's impossible to avoid comparisons with Toneelgroep Amsterdam's Roman Tragedies, which similarly updated Coriolanus to the boardrooms and corridors of power, and turned the play into a critique of media involvement in politics and the machinations of state. Fiennes's movie takes the concept but integrates it deeply into a setting that evokes the Yugoslav wars and Arab Spring (fortuitously, as filming had been mostly completed by the middle of last year). The blurring between the fictional world of "A Place Calling Itself Rome" and the real world was most apparent in the appearance of Jon Snow, reporting from the comfortable sofas of the Fidelius News network and grilling guests about the political ambitions of Caius Martius.

Televisions featured throughout, from the opening speeches of Menenius listened to by a fuming protest cell to the carefully staged presentation of Martius to the consulate. In the marketplace, surrounded by Eastern European stallkeepers, Martius blinked in the glare of a dozen cameraphones; and a microphone damningly picked up his hissed complaints to Brian Cox's Menenius in the senate room. For his final aborted apology, senators James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson convened a tacky TV studio set-up, and riled up the crowds to call for his banishment with chants of "It shall be so!" More movingly, Virgilia (an excellent Jessica Chastain) twitched uncomfortably in front of lagging news reports of the fighting in Corioles while her son heedlessly shot cans with an airgun outside.

Fiennes's Martius was ill at ease in this constantly recorded world. In the opening sequence, a mob waving protest banners advanced on Rome's central grain store, and he faced down protesters while snarling at the watching cameras, which kept rolling as the riot police advanced. The messiness of adhoc recording translated to the excellent camerawork, particularly as Martius lashed out at the tribunes, pushing one to the floor while police attempted to keep a roaring mob at bay. In the chaos, the camera came detached, focusing on details - an eye, a phone, a hand, a slogan - as Menenius finally lost control of the situation.

The gritty feel showcased a stunning environment. As a grizzled Martius left Rome for banishment, he marched through wartorn ruins and bleak countryside, a world of roads that stretched to nowhere and roaming wild dogs. Yet emerging at Antium, a Mediterranean coastal town, we saw the peaceful beauty of the country desolated elsewhere by fighting. The soldiers of both armies were rowdy skinheads, tattooing each other and drinking to their respective iconic leaders. As unthinking as the masses incited by the tribunes, the soldiers were fiercely loyal to whoever commanded them, transferring as easily to Coriolanus as they did back to Lartius in the final moments.

The war scenes were expertly shot, making good sense of the text as Martius ran off alone after an explosion to wreak havoc. A shocking sequence saw him touring a burnt out apartment block, kicking down doors (a nod was made here to the old man who gave Shakespeare's hero assistance, as one elderly man offered a bottle of water from his sofa) and shooting civilians, whose bodies we were reminded of throughout. Aufidius (Gerard Butler) himself found the bodies of his wife and children left bleeding in a car following the fall of Corioles. Yet while this was a war conducted primarily with bombs and guns, the cultish followings of both leaders allowed them to strip themselves of their heavy weaponry when finally meeting and engage in a knife fight, the two holding each other in a death embrace that found more intimacy than anything else in this cold environment.

Crucially, Fiennes only laughed in the company of his soldiers. With his mother, the excellent Vanessa Redgrave, he could only humble himself, occasionally crying out in frustration at the constricting nature of their relationship. Yet Virgilia and Volumnia made an impressive team, whether tussling with the tribunes after Martius's banishment or kneeling together before Martius's army. In an extended and fantastically played scene, Virgilia's steady gaze and Volumnia's no-nonsense appeals finally reduced the soldier to tears, helped by a genuinely surprising intervention from his otherwise silent son. Yet even more moving was Cox's Menenius, tasked with the impossible. Facing Martius at night, he was stunned to be cut off by his former friend, and looked around the rest of the Volscian army before leaving, silently. In a short sequence following, he sat by a canal and took of his watch. Quietly, he slit his wrist and bled to death, another neglected body lying alone at the side of the road.

There was great support from John Kani as Cominius and a fine group of morally ambivalent rebels, but this was ultimately Fiennes and Butler's show. As Aufidius shaved Martius's head, his hand lingered on his skull, reminding us of his deeply conflicted relationship with his new ally. Fittingly, the final scene played out not in the Volscian camp, but at a roadside checkpoint. Surrounded by Aufidius's men, Martius killed two before finally falling into Aufidius's arms. As the latter's dagger slipped into Martius, the two men embraced more tightly than ever before, lowering themselves together to the ground. There was no final eulogy or second thought from Aufidius - just the final image of Coriolanus's body, thrown onto a bare platform. This was raw, gripping Shakespeare for the twenty-first century, and an impressive turn from Fiennes both in front of and behind the camera.

January 09, 2012

The Duchess of Malfi (Blood and Thunder) @ Hall's Croft, Stratford–upon–Avon (archive video)

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I'm beginning the year with a binge of EM drama film recordings, including Greenwich Theatre's Volpone, Kozintsev's Hamlet, Taymor's Tempest, Doran's Winter's Tale and Fiennes's Coriolanus, one or two of which I may review here. One pleasure of this quiet patch is the chance to finally catch up with a production I missed in the summer owing to my travels - Blood and Thunder Theatre Company's outdoor production of Webster's The Duchess of Malfi.

I can't really give it a proper review, as it only survives on an archive video that, unfortunately, was recorded on a rather blustery day at the expense of audibility. However, the production exemplifies Blood and Thunder's approach - an intimate, fluid and fluent version, stripped down to some basic props and sumptuous costumes, set against the rather splendid backdrop of Hall's Croft.

The simple setting allowed the performances to come to the fore, most obviously in a fun wooing scene between Kelley Costigan's austere but playful Duchess and Jose A. Perez Diez's upstanding Antonio. What the production (directed by Maria Jeffries) clearly understood was the formalities of court and courtship, which were played up to and then dismantled for dramatic effect - the fun of this scene was in watching the two trade politenesses while coming longingly to their shared agreement, while Helen Osborne's furtive Cariola his behind an arras, pointing up the staged quality of the Duchess's scene.

I was less persuaded by the atmosphere of the piece - Malfi has always screamed dark and claustrophobic to me, and the airy setting made the plotting feel more public than I would ideally have liked (although a nice moment after the severed hand coup saw Ferdinand peeping out from the windows of the Tudor house). However, Steve Quick's Bosola made great use of the visibility of the audience, addressing his schemes to the assembled crowd and managing his unsuspecting victims. I appreciated the comic and militaristic feel of the character, as if Sir Toby or Parolles had discovered how to take over a play. This Bosola, towering over many of the other actors, was more physically imposing than might be expected, drawing attention to him from the start as the character to watch. Yet what marked this production was the evenness of its ensemble - if not drawn to Matt Kubus's almost fantastical Ferdinand, with plumed hat, we were conspiring with Antonio and Gareth Bernard's Delio or back once more with Bosola's compelling choric motions.

From the recording I found it hard to gauge tone and emphasis, so it was difficult to discern an overriding vision for the play. Anomalies in the text such as Delio's isolated encounter with Julia and the early ramblings of Castruccio were retained, keeping a reasonably full text rather than (as sometimes happens) focusing entirely on the primary plot. Yet what did begin to emerge was a sense of the very human relationships destroyed by events. This was particularly obvious in a moving parting scene between the Duchess and Antonio, which saw a tender but hopeless farewell followed immediately by the Duchess spitting defiance at the ever-swaggering Bosola.

As the play moved into the final two acts and the sun began setting, the tone shifted noticably from the domestic to the grotesque, as Ferdinand danced with the severed hand and the madmen pranced manically about the stage. An increasingly weary-looking Bosola stood in contrast to the hysterics as the deaths began mounting up, once more establishing him as the play's centre of gravity. Yet inevitably, it was in the littering of bodies at the play's bloody conclusion that the production finally satisfied, its characters convincingly bound up in events that they could rail at but ultimately not avoid.

A video is no substitute for the real thing, but it was a pleasure to finally see a version of the play and get a sense of Blood & Thunder's work. Keep an eye out for them surfacing in or near Stratford next summer, with any luck!

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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