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Coriolanus &

The Winter’s Tale

Guardian, 28th November 1990, Michael Billington

I had mixed feelings about the English Shakespeare company’s acclaimed production of ‘The Wars of the Roses’: a populist approach verged on the patronising. Now the ESC is back on the road with a nine-month tour combining a controversial ‘Coriolanus’ with a hauntingly beautiful ‘Winter’s Tale’.

Michael Bogdanov’s ‘Coriolanus’ is aggressively topical and consistently provocative. It is set not in ancient Rome but in a modern East European state where a military autocracy is threatened by popular uprisings. The rioting citizens bear Solidarity-type banners. Caius Marcius is elected consul under the looming icon of a Stalinesque hero. And the tribunes inhabit dusty offices filled with clattering typewriters and telephones which bring news of Coriolanus’s vengeful expedition. We might be in Warsaw, Bucharest or old-style East Berlin.

Mr Bogdanov is clearly on to something. This is Shakespeare’s most profoundly political play and deals explicitly with the conflict between the entrenched absolutism and popular discontent. The problem Mr Bogdanov faces is that Shakespeare also shows Coriolanus as a tragic hero and suggests that the people are misled by their elected representatives. Brecht solved this by re-writing Shakespeare’s ending. Mr Bogdanov sticks with the text but is confronted by the awkward fact that Shakespeare’s play is anything but an endorsement of people power.

Individual scenes have enormous power and Michael Pennington, although rarely allowed to engage our sympathies, is a fine Coriolanus. He epitomises the scarred, battle-hardened military machine, mouthing with contempt the popular slogan “The people are the city”. Even when speaking into a microphone, he relishes the verse and in his Antium banishment catches the doomed solitude of Shakespeare’s lonely dragon.

Around him many ESC regulars give good support. Andrew Jarvis is a commanding guerrilla-style Aufidius. June Watson’s splendid Volumnia is a bellicose Old European aristocrat unafraid to give her recalcitrant son a clip round the ear. And Michael Cronin and Robert Demeger make a strong case for the tribunes as harassed living in the world of office-memos, re-heated coffee and Moscow newspapers. Shakespeare’s radical optimism in no way matches Mr Bogdanov’s but it remains a needling up-to-the-minute production.

‘The Winter’s Tale’ is even better: a clear, poignant reading, staged in Victorian-to-modern dress, of a resurrection myth. In Chris Dyer’s set it shifts easily from a Sicilia of perspex mirrors to a rustic Bohemia filled with woolly fleeces (Mr Bogdanov, it turns out, is an active shearer) and hairy, flashing satyrs in sheep’s clothing.

Pennington’s Leontes is also a wonderful study of jealous paranoia. He gives us a clenched, frock-coated figure who prises dirty double-meanings out of every phrase, graphically demonstrates to Camillo what he means by “horsing foot on foot” and rushes at Hermione’s new baby as if he were a demented Herod. The shock lies in the fact that Mr Pennington looks like a bookish Victorian cleric and behaves like a possessed demon.

There are one or two inspired touches. The awkward scene where the three Sicilian gentlemen describes Leontes’ reunion with his daughter is here treated by Mr Bogdanov as a press conference filled with snapping cameras. But nothing is forced or strained and there’s a clutch of good performances from Lynn Farleigh as a statuesque Hermione, from Bernard Lloyd as an extremely Welsh Old Bohemian Shepherd and James Hayes as an indisputably Gaelic Autolycus. Instead of advancing a thesis Mr Bogdanov realises a fable that makes the audience, rather like the restored Perdita, “bleed tears”.

Return to ‘Coriolanus’

The Observer, 2nd December 1990, Michael Coveney

The English Shakespeare Company’s officially unwrapped its new productions of ‘Coriolanus’ and ‘The Winter’s Tale’ in the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, last weekend, before resuming a tour which takes them to Bath this week, Nottingham next, followed by Hamburg, Helsinki, Copenhagen, India, Australia, Oxford and, next April, the Old Vic.

With the Royal Shakespeare Company out of the Barbican, and Shakespearean productions dwindling almost to nought in the regions, the nation is reverting to a Victorian-age cultural dependency on the touring companies. What the reps were designed to provide is now in the gift of the ESC, Kenneth Branagh’s Renaissance Theatre Company and the RSC when it goes to Newcastle. In Plymouth, the audiences have devoured these bristling, controversial productions with impatient gusto,

It is only critics who become Bardically blasé. One new colleague has even renounced the idea of travelling to Stratford-upon-Avon, which is like a football correspondent refusing to go to Anfield or Old Trafford. For audiences, however, Shakespeare remains, in Jan Kott’s phrase, our contemporary. By setting the Roman scenes of ‘Coriolanus’ in the dark metallic world of the Gdansk shipyards, Bogdanov unleashes the central dichotomy of the play – between people power and the need to focus it on an anointed delegate – in a way at once exciting and profound. The banners of democracy are reminiscent of the Solidarity logo, and there is nothing remotely far-fetched in the back-stabbings and platform power-games that ensue.

The only problem is that the insistence on an Eastern European setting makes a nonsense of the wider imperial theme. Antium is a curiously naff Mediterranean outpost of head-scarves, balalaika music and waiters who feed off the top table leftovers. The fictive nature of this environment is underlined by Andrew Jarvis’s Yul Brynner-ish Aufidius, who is transported to the scene of his own defeat at Corioles and allowed to describe it in a joltingly prosaic insertion from North’s Plutarch.

Other characteristic Bogdanov elaborations include the remodelling of Volumnia’s re-entry to Rome as a TV news item, and the cutting down of Coriolanus in a volley of gunfire. Argument will rage over the quality of these and other distractions; but I am bound to say that Bogdanov only ever commits his crimes in good faith. Having wrenched the play into a recognisable milieu, he allows it to proceed in its own way, and the distribution of the crowd scenes is far more gripping than in recent productions at the National and RSC.

Above all, the symbiotic political relationship of Aufidius and Michael Pennington’s fastidiously contemptuous Coriolanus is conveyed with steely precision, with no allowance made for the fashionable homoerotic undertow. Pennington’s valedictory “I shall be loved when I am lacked” carried obvious new resonances last weekend, and Volumnia’s proud “This lady’s husband … whom you have banished does exceed you all” – was uncannily echoed in Mr Kinnock’s first House of Commons statement on the Tory putsch.

The balance of contrasting worlds, though, is more successfully managed in ‘The Winter’s Tale’, where the Pennington/Jarvis axis finds poetic renewal in the falling out of Leontes and Polixenes. The tactical error of opening with a precious prologue (“In the bleak mid-winter” and an Edwardian story-time scena) is submerged in the greater achievement of explaining what Leontes is really like through the evocation of his chill, civilised Sicilia and its barren arts scene. The sculptor Romano, whom Leontes patronises, is obviously a decadent modernist: a glass egg frighteningly explodes in its steel-frame support structure when the oracle declares Leontes false to his wife’s honour.

One innovative link with Bohemia is forged when Antigonus, he who “exits pursued by a bear”, is tapped on the shoulder by a hairy paw belonging to an apparition of Leontes himself. The presence of the disguised paternal figure is then more literally expressed at the sheep-shearing, in which the company is joyously transformed into a recognisable Welsh farming community, with stacks of odiferous wiry wool. Oaken tables, flowing cider and the diversionary bucking of James Hayes’s delightful Irish Autolycus (aka Aut O’Lucas).

The ESC is at full strength this year, and a wide range of notable doubles include those of Lynn Farleigh as Virgilia and Hermione, June Watson as Volumnia and Paulina, Bernard Lloyd as Menenius and the Shepherd, and Robert Demeger as a tribune and Camillo. Michael Pennington, in two studies of vainglorious emotional hauteur, leads from the front with accustomed aplomb.

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