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Roman hero for our day

Western Mail, 21st September 1990, Nicole Sochor

References to modern day Eastern Europe will pervade the English Shakespeare Company’s production of ‘Coriolanus’ opening in Swansea on Monday.

The Roman consul Coriolanus is a victorious warrior given power by the people he disdains. Unable to come to terms with political change, he is forced into exile and chooses to betray his city rather than his principles.

The tragedy bears parallels to the situation in the crumbling Eastern Bloc. And the autocratic hero is in the same mould as many Communist leaders, suggest ESC artistic director Mr Michael Pennington.

In fact the decision to make ‘Coriolanus’ part of the ESC’s latest worldwide tour was taken 18 months ago while the company was in Hamburg presenting its seven-play Bardic blockbuster ‘The Wars of the Roses’. No one could foresee that within months the Berlin Wall would fall, but even so “we sensed things were on the move,” says Mr Pennington.

“’Coriolanus’ is Shakespeare’s most political play, in which he explores the nature of government, of democracy and authoritarianism. It is impossible to read without seeing its relevance to the situation in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

“’Coriolanus’ opens with the mob rioting because there isn’t any bread, which is very like the situation Gorbachev faces today.

“The masses are shown as brutal and fickle and you can’t help feeling sorry for Coriolanus. But you also feel the citizenry is right to take charge of its own future, just as the people of Berlin were right to take control of their lives. Rome was struggling for democracy and in the process it banished its finest son.”

To highlight the parallels, the costumes and props will mix ancient and modern images, such as bringing bayonets into gladiatorial combat. Purists won’t approve, but it’s an ESC hallmark to mix periods to make the events relevant today. Hence in ‘The Wars of the Roses’ Prince Hall was a punk rocker and Henry VI a media-courting politician.

“We want to make Shakespeare as accessible as possible,” says ESC member Charles Dale. “It pays off because we attract a large younger audience and the kids go away arguing about the points raised in the plays.”

Tenby-born Mr Dale directs the plays fight scenes. The company was so keen to understand the dynamics of mob violence that it spoke to the police and examined film footage of riots.

‘Coriolanus’ is one of Shakespeare’s longer plays (this trimmed down version will run at three hours) and is a taxing role for the hero, who is on stage most of the time and when he is not, is being talked about. Mr Pennington plays Coriolanus and also takes the role of King Leontes in ‘The Winter’s Tale’, the other half of the ESC’s double bill playing at Swansea Grand Theatre for a week from Monday as part of the Swansea Festival.

“The two roles are quite different,” says Mr Pennington. “Coriolanus has immense self confidence and unquestioned power, but like all tragic heroes possesses a tragic flaw that causes his downfall. On the other hand, Leontes is in the grip of the most humiliating emotions of all, sexual jealousy.”

In this romantic fairy tale Leontes is driven mad with suspicion about his blameless wife and becomes a tyrant, bringing unhappiness to his land. But Shakespeare waves his wand to bring about a happy ending.

The company has been in rehearsal for two weeks, directed by Welsh-born Michael Bogdanov who co-founded the ESC with Mr Pennington.

Following the premiere in Swansea – the play’s only Welsh venue – the ESC will fly to Tokyo to perform at the Globe Theatre, which it officially opened in 1988 with ‘Wars of the Roses’. The Company will later visit Copenhagen, Helsinki, India and Australia before settling at the Old Vic in London in April.

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