Coriolanus. Directed by Jonathan Kent at the Gainsborough Studios, Shoreditch, 1 June - 5 August, 2000.
Lisa Hopkins
Sheffield Hallam University

Hopkins, Lisa. "Review of Coriolanus." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.2 (September, 2000): 26.1-3 <URL:

Design by Paul Brown, lighting by Mark Henderson, music by Jonathan Dove, sound by John A. Leonard, fights by William Hobbs and voice by Patsy Rodenburg. With Ralph Fiennes as Coriolanus, Robert Swann as Titus Lartius, David Burke as Cominius, Oliver Ford Davies as Menenius, Barbara Jefford as Volumnia, Emilia Fox as Virgilia, Angela Down as Valeria, Danielle King as gentlewoman, Philip Dunbar as 1st Roman senator, Roger Swaine as 2nd Roman senator, Alan David as Sicinius Velutus, Bernard Gallagher as Junius Brutus, Paul Moriarty as 1st Citizen, Sean Baker as 2nd Citizen, Damian O'Hare as 3rd Citizen, Stephen Finegold as 4th Citizen, Ed Waters as 5th Citizen, Paul Benzing as 6th Citizen, Marc Small as 7th Citizen, Linus Roache as Tullus Aufidius, John Bennett as 1st Volscian Senator, Ian Barritt as 2nd Volscian Senator, Stephen Campbell Moore as 1st Volscian, David Fahm as 2nd Volscian, Oliver Ryan as 3rd Volscian.

  1. The directors of the Almeida Theatre, whose leaking roof means that they will soon have to close for refurbishment, have had the inspired idea of setting part of their summer season in the disused and semi-ruined Gainsborough film studios in Shoreditch. Since the studios will soon be almost entirely demolished in order for the premises to be converted to apartments, the Almeida has effectively had carte blanche to rig the interior up as a temporary performance space. The result has one or two drawbacks--the acoustic is slightly muffled, and the seating, constructed from scaffolding, is excruciatingly uncomfortable--but nevertheless spectacular, and a worthy valediction for such a site. Told that they could approach their occupancy in a spirit of "benign trespass," the Almeida have ripped out the first floor to give a huge space with a bare brick back wall pierced with asymmetrical and partially blocked openings, and reft by a massive crack which, the programme explains, represents "a schism in the worlds of the plays."

  2. The other play in question is Richard II, also starring Ralph Fiennes, but it was in fact Richard III of whom I was most strongly reminded by Fiennes' performance. In the first place, out of battle Fiennes' Coriolanus stands stiffly, his left arm held awkwardly behind his back, one leg thrust oddly forward, in ways that constantly hover on the brink of suggesting a deformity that afflicts him only in peacetime. In the second, he speaks to the audience a great deal. The use of the large, rectangular space of the Gainsborough studios has created an unusually blunt and head-on divide between actors and audience, and it is perhaps in an attempt to negotiate this that Coriolanus and several of the other characters are given to turning fully to face the audience. We are also directly pointed to as the gazers to whom Coriolanus is reluctant to exhibit his scars, and indeed we never come even close to seeing them, for Coriolanus, in keeping with his nervousness about the body, is generally well concealed beneath a green military tunic and trousers with white cravat, occasionally topped by a grey coat faintly reminiscent of Napoleonic uniform. For this troubled and repressed character, Fiennes' clipped, "u" tones and aloof demeanour work perfectly; it is easily possible to see Coriolanus as the spiritual brother of Amon Goeth and László Almásy. Coriolanus certainly takes no notice whatever of his son (who in this production never speaks) or of his beautiful wife, a stunningly glamorous blonde-bobbed, grey-gowned Emilia Fox. With Barbara Jefford's formidable Volumnia, however, he instantly reverts to the behaviour of a small child; when he finally relents, he not only takes her hand but kneels down by her side as if trying to creep once again under her sheltering wing. After this, there is really nothing left for the Volscians to destroy, and when four of them pinion him while Linus Roache's Tullus Aufidius cuts his throat he dies instantly and silently. He has, however, found a brief redeeming moment of anagnorisis, for in Fiennes' delivery of it, his rebuttal of Aufidius' boy becomes not simply a show of resentment but the first time that he has actually felt able to mention and lay claim to his own achievements.

  3. Not all the other performances are of either the stature or the audibility of Fiennes' or Jefford's. Oliver Ford Davies makes a fine Menenius, a man of the world who is nevertheless genuinely distressed at his failure to move Coriolanus, and both Linus Roache and Emilia Fox extract the maximum possible impact from their rather unpromising roles. Alan David as Sicinius and Bernard Gallagher as Brutus, however, are underdeveloped in characterisation, motivation and voice projection, nor does Paul Moriarty as First Citizen make much impact. It is a rich if not altogether surprising irony that a play produced on the borders of Islington, spiritual home of New Labour, should so unproblematically relegate the plebs and their representatives to the roles of villains and cowards, but the crude cartoon outlines in which they are here presented serve nevertheless to reduce rather than enrich this intensely political play. It is perhaps a good job that for all the grand gesture of setting up this "Shakespeare in Shoreditch" programme to civilise the natives, and even despite the admirable offer of reduced prices for local residents, the audience on the evening I saw it were as resolutely middle-class as ever, with leafletters for the one nearby wine bar doing a roaring trade while the black kids rode their bikes on the green outside, a perfect emblem of why the play continues to bite.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2000-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).