Sovereign States

Going for Bolingbroke: Fiennes as Richard II, at BAM.Photo: Stephanie Berger

It is not insignificant that three such diverse geniuses as Bernard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht, and T. S. Eliot were admirers of Coriolanus. This last and driest of Shakespeare’s tragedies is, in some ways, his most unusual. A play about a hero, it is also a play without a hero – without anyone in it to identify with. And not only that; it is also a play with relatively little memorable poetry and few quotable lines. Bartlett’s gleans only a meager 21 quotations from it, as against 58 from Antony and Cleopatra, which preceded it, omitting even the famous “There is a world elsewhere.” But a drama is not to be judged on its quota of quotes; it may even be that the lack of detachable sound bites attests to cohesion, functional construction, and seamless unity.

So here is the tragedy of one whom E. K. Chambers has called “a patrician of the patricians” – an elitist’s elitist. Also a great warrior, a soldier for whom valor and honor are synonymous. Coriolanus has no aptitude for peace, politics, or pleasing the populace – they are a mere rabble to him, their tribunes just envious demagogues. Shakespeare tends to agree with him, but not entirely. Even the plebeians are people and should not be spurned or provoked. Better attain the consulship by currying favor with them than to be one whose “forensic mode,” to quote Harry Levin, “is that of dissuasion,” as Coriolanus, meant to seek the plebs’ endorsement, does his best to earn their hostility.

This makes him a hard role to play, especially in today’s world, which has reduced democracy to populism or, worse yet, a popularity contest. Ralph Fiennes, in the Almeida Theatre production guesting at bam, does a thoroughly decent job of it, walking a fine line between sympathy and antipathy. He does not wholly convey a wizard who can conquer a town single-handed, but he is crisply military, haughtily single-minded, uneasy with the aristocrats, and contemptuous of the plebs. What he lacks is the charisma of an Olivier, whose epochal Coriolanus is dazzlingly evoked in two ebullient pages of Kenneth Tynan’s Curtains (read them and marvel at both actor and critic).

Outstanding, too, is the Volumnia of Barbara Jefford, the Roman matron and mother par unholy excellence, who has reared the future Coriolanus in a heroic mold too large for life, and who, from motives equally noble and misguided, breaks that mold with her son still in it. It’s a deftly calibrated performance that inches up to a grim grandeur that must also leave us divided. (The program note by Professor Anthony W. Clare, ridiculing both mother and son, carries p.c. to the level of idiocy.)

As Aufidius, leader of the Volscians, Linus Roache comes up with a nicely judged blend of doughtiness and perfidy, and the others give well-spoken, dependable, British supporting performances, unspectacular but resonant. Only the tribunes, Alan David and Bernard Gallagher, disappoint: the one too much a snarling jackal, the other too edentate a jackass.

Jonathan Kent has directed sensibly in Paul Brown’s minimalist setting, which is, however, distinguished by an immense slab of a metallic door that rises mightily on dry ice drifting in, or falls thunderously shut. Brown’s costumes are an awkward blend of Roman and contemporary; Mark Henderson’s lighting and Jonathan Dove’s music are serviceable. A respectable production, this, of a too rarely seen play, and welcome as such.

Though Kent directs Richard II with nice visual panoply, he turns the king early on into such a popinjay cavorting with fellow coxcombs that, for all of Fiennes’s valiant efforts at redemption through adversity, the production fails to be moving. Linus Roache’s vocal acrobatics – constant changes of pitch and volume – undermine his Bolingbroke, even as similar histrionics undercut Emilia Fox’s Queen Isabel. It is wrong, too, for Gaunt (David Burke) to sabotage the famous England speech with moribund choppiness, however realistic. Otherwise, the cast was more of a rounded ensemble here, and Brown’s set, like Henderson’s lighting, worked wonders.

Sovereign States