Coriolanus, Showcase Cinema Bluewater, 20 January 2012
Coriolanus, Greenwich Picturehouse, 31 January 2012
Ralph Fiennes’ film version of Coriolanus has achieved something that mere theatre directors can only dream of.
It combines powerful cinematic effects with the beauty and force of Shakespeare’s words, as well as thoughtful and intelligent direction, to create a production of a Shakespeare play that feels completely of the present day, in many ways a prediction of our near future, while staying firmly rooted in the original text.
Taking a second and third look at the film, I was reminded that one particularly good directorial choice centred on the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother Volumnia. The film makes a point of highlighting the intensity of this relationship as a way of explaining the warrior’s final surrender to Volumnia’s entreaties.
One of the devices is fairly obvious. Volumnia talks to Coriolanus while dressing his wounds in the bathroom of the family home. His wife Virgilia walks in on them and withdraws in embarrassment at interrupting this intimacy.
But an earlier indication of the bond between mother and son is more subtle.
During the battle at Corioles a booby-trapped bus is detonated by the defending force. The explosion stuns Martius and knocks him to the ground. The action cuts to his home where we see a domestic scene between Volumnia and Virgilia.
Volumnia imagines Martius in the heat of battle and says to Virgilia:
Methinks I see him stamp thus, and call thus:
‘Come on you cowards, you were got in fear
Though you were born in Rome’.
She speaks these words in voice-over as the picture cuts back to Martius waking from the shock of the blast. Her voice seems to be ringing in his ears, rousing and energising him. This apparent psychic link could more readily be explained as a childhood memory of his mother’s encouragement welling up as a result of being stunned by the bomb.
Once upon his feet, he rounds on his troops castigating them for having “souls of geese”.
This sequence reinforces the idea, contained in the text, that his valour was instilled in him from an early age by Volumnia. It is her voice that appears to make him get up and fight again.
This connection, along with the bond witnessed in the wound binding sequence, is used to explain why Coriolanus breaks down in the face of his mother’s disapproval. Volumnia was his inspiration and backbone. When she disowns him, the withdrawal of her support and approval brings about his capitulation.
In the spirit of creative theft it would be interesting to see a theatre director replicate a similar effect on stage.
UK premiere of Coriolanus, Odeon West End 2, 16 October 2011
The opening shot of the film is a close-up of a man, whom we later discover to be Aufidius, sharpening an elaborately decorated sword on a whetstone. The primitiveness of this antique preparation for battle creates a fleeting impression that we are watching a film set in ancient Rome. But that is soon undercut by the sight of a modern television screen tuned to a news channel (Fidelis TV) showing the latest events in Rome.
We learn that there are food riots and that the army and police under the command of Martius are dealing with a popular uprising. A caption describes the location of these events as “A place calling itself Rome”, which is a direct borrowing, acknowledged in the end credits, of the title of John Osborne’s adaptation of the play.
The mutinous citizens watch the news in a flat and discuss their plan of action. They speak of Martius as their enemy against a backdrop of his appearances on television.
The mob marches on Rome’s central grain store, which is a series of large concrete silos protected by a fence and the paramilitary police. Menenius does not confront the citizens nor deliver his homily based on comparing the senate to the stomach, but he is seen commenting on television in support of the government line.
Martius steps out from among the ranks of the police striding confidently and full of purpose towards the crowd, many of whom are carrying banners showing his defaced image. He haughtily spurns their demands and soon the riot police are driving them back, banging their shields with their truncheons in the precise manner of a Roman army. The fact that some modern police forces use this tactic creates an interesting resonance: a reused Roman practice is replicated on film as part of a story set in Roman times, but presented as contemporary.
A captured Roman soldier is seen tied and bound being interrogated by Aufidius. He talks about the insurrections and is then shot through the head. This dialogue is taken from 4.3, a scene that occurs in the play after Coriolanus’ banishment, but here serves to set the scene in Rome and to establish the Volsces as bad guys.
The motion freezes after the execution and we see an onscreen caption. The picture expands to take in a meeting room where the video file is being viewed, and we see the Roman council of war reviewing their latest intelligence on Volscian activity. The fact that the Romans have access to Volsce files supports Aufidius’ suspicion voiced later that the Romans “are enter’d in our counsels”.
The action then continues with the meeting in 1.1 at which the enmity between Martius and Aufidius is confirmed “He is a lion that I am proud to hunt”. Martius is appointed to lead the war.
Sicinius and Brutus, the tribunes of the people, watch Martius on television and comment on his pride. The conflict between Rome and the Volsces is described as arising from a border dispute.
Aufidius is dispatched by the Volscian senators to fight against Rome.
This leads straight into the battle for Corioles. Martius leads his troops in street battles against heavily defended Volscian positions. There is something thrilling about Shakespeare’s words being part of such a kinetic battle scene with dialogue punctuated by the incessant clatter of bullet casings hitting the ground. At one point an anti-tank weapon is fired at a building with explosive results.
Martius leads his section towards an abandoned bus. They discover that it is booby-trapped and the bus explodes before they can get clear of it. Martius lies stunned on the ground.
Martius’ son takes pot shots at tin cans with an air rifle in the garden of the palatial family home. We see an edited version of 1.3 in which Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) discusses the war with Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) and Valeria.
It is to the credit of the film that it did not shy away from some of the play’s more obscure references. So in this sequence we have Volumnia trying to cajole Virgilia out of her fretful mood by reminding her that all Penelope’s yard “spun in Ulysses’ absence did but fill Ithica with moths”.
Back in Corioles, Martius recovers and strides back through the gap in the bus torn by the explosion. He rallies his men, who have retreated, castigating them for being “souls of geese”.
They charge through the destroyed bus and into the courtyard of a building, still under incoming fire from the defending Volsces. At this point in the play, Martius enters into the gates of Corioles and is not seen until his return. The film invents action taking place inside the building representing ‘the city’. Martius fights from room to room, in one encountering an old woman who offers him water from a bottle which he drinks. In another, he accidentally shoots a civilian with his sidearm. Finally, he fights a Volscian soldier with his dagger and kills him but only after incurring wounds himself.
Martius emerges from the building with blood streaming down his head, which he dismisses as “rather physical than dangerous to me”.
He leads his men back into the building in search of Aufidius. They encounter each other but the battle is reduced to mano-a-mano by Martius’ request “I’ll fight with none but thee”. With their men standing aside, they drop their rifles and body armour and fight with daggers inside the building. After a protracted struggle they crash out through a window and onto the ground below. Incoming mortar fire stuns them both, effectively putting an end to their fight.
The victorious Martius is received in Rome. Volumnia dons her military dress uniform and sets off from their residence, briefly telling Menenius (Brian Cox) about the wounds Martius has received (taken from 2.1). Once inside the senate, Volumnia delivers her eerie summary of his character:
Before him he carries noise, and behind him he leaves tears:
Death, that dark spirit, in’s nervy arm doth lie,
Which, being advanc’d, declines, and then men die.
Cominius (John Kani) formally welcomes Martius in triumph and bestows the cognomen Coriolanus on him. He greets his tearful wife Virgilia and treats her tenderly.
Back in Corioles, Aufidius surveys a Roman atrocity, a family lies slain inside their people carrier. The Volscian general vows to revenge himself.
Sicinius, played with an air of great cynical opportunism by James Nesbitt, and Brutus (Paul Jesson) discuss the situation in a bar until they are interrupted by Menenius. The bar location works well because when Menenius says he likes a cup of hot wine, he fingers a nearby wine glass as if to prove the point.
Coriolanus is lauded by Cominius in the Senate, but he feels uncomfortable with his efforts being praised and at one point stands outside the senate chamber hearing Cominius’ echoing voice.
The actual Serbian senate chamber was used for this scene. Brian Cox, who plays Menenius, said at the post-screening discussion that he found filming there quite unnerving as the walls were lined with images of some quite nasty Serbian nationalist ‘heroes’.
Coriolanus is recalled and told to present himself in the market place to ask for the people’s approval. He already shows signs of unease at this.
A motorcade brings Coriolanus to the market place and he meets various citizens and treats them with cold, disdainful respect. The one exception is a war veteran. Recognising him as a fellow soldier, Coriolanus is pleased to receive his support “A match, sir.” An old woman accuses him of not loving the common people. We also see some of the conspirators who organised the protest at the grain store at the start of the film.
After the citizens have given Coriolanus their support, the tribunes quickly cause dissension among them and they change their minds.
Back at the senate, Coriolanus receives news about Aufidius’ renewed war preparations via a video link on his MacBook Pro. On his way into the senate chamber he is blocked by the tribunes who tell him of the people’s new verdict.
Coriolanus’ anger at this reversal boils over into shouting about Sicinius’ absolute “shall”. He rails against the concessions to the people, which he fears will “break ope the locks o’th’senate, and bring in the crows to peck the eagles”. When Sicinius accuses him of treason, Coriolanus wrestles him out through the door into the open air where their scuffle is seen by the public. Sicinius uses this as proof to plebeians that Coriolanus “would take from you all your power”.
In the following confusion, Sicinius’ key line “What is the city but the people” is given to one of the plebeians, which gives the line more traction.
The debate with the tribunes, Menenius and a plebeian is shown as a panel discussion chaired by Jon Snow. Some of the semi-comic sequences involving servants were not filmed, taking some of the light relief out of the story. However, the inclusion of Jon Snow more than makes up for this excision, as his onscreen presence produced much amusement. On another occasion he also acts as a news reader bringing news of Volscian action.
Coriolanus has his wounds bound and bathed by Volumnia as he swears to remain constant. This means that she tends to him on two levels: his physical wounds and his state of mind. As this takes place in private, Menenius lines were cut from the sequence.
At one point Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia enters the room while his mother is wrapping his bandages. She senses that she is intruding on a private moment and withdraws without saying anything. She occupies herself with her son instead. Later Virgilia strokes Coriolanus’ chest hair in bed.
This additional scene underlined Coriolanus’ crucial bond with his mother, relegating his wife to a secondary position. This key relationship proves crucial later in the story, so anything that underscores it makes the storytelling work better.
Volumnia convinces him to go back to the tribunes.
Coriolanus is jeered and whistled at as he enters the television studio where the presentation to the tribunes is to take place. The tribunes accuse him of wanting to be a tyrant. Menenius defends him and tries to mollify his anger, but the charge of treason pushes Coriolanus over the edge.
He rails against the people in full glare of the cameras. Making this a televised event with a huge audience makes this a much more public and exposed situation than a simple meeting.
Brutus pronounces Coriolanus’ banishment whereupon Coriolanus calls them all “You common cry of curs” and pronounces his banishment on them.
During all these exchanges, no reference was made to the Tarpeian rock from which miscreants were thrown in ancient Rome.
Volumnia, Virgilia and Valeria meet the tribunes outside the building and Volumnia harangues them and invokes her curses on them.
Coriolanus tramps through a war-ravaged country village with a backpack and beanie, surveying the desolation and poverty around him. He beds down for the night on a piece of dry land within a marsh with his departing words to his mother ringing through his head.
This detail bore the traces of the research that went into the film, as the ancient Volscian territory did include a substantial marshy region.
He awakes and continues his lonely journey, hitching a lift from a lorry driver, until he reaches the coastal town of Antium. Threading his way warily through the streets, he spies Aufidius being greeted warmly by the townspeople. He follows him back to his base and forces his way into the room where Aufidius is eating. The Volsces turn their handguns on him, and Coriolanus has to remind Aufidius who he is. He explains how he has turned his back on Rome and wishes to serve the Volsces.
Aufidius looks moved by Coriolanus’ words and hugs him warmly. He compares his feelings for Coriolanus compared with those he had for his wife. This closeness is accentuated in a silent scene, which shows the hirsute exile being shaved, first by an old woman, but subsequently by Aufidius himself.
The shaving of his head restores Coriolanus to the warlike appearance that characterised his previous accomplishments. He is recreated a warrior, but this time on the side of the Volsces.
The last part of Aufidius’ greeting to Coriolanus, in which he gives him one half of his commission to lead the war, is kept over until after he has been cleaned up and they are talking together in a meeting room over a table strewn with maps.
The comic sequence with the servers was not filmed, mostly because the people surrounding Aufidius were all soldiers who looked strangers to wit and banter.
As the news channels report Coriolanus’ alliance with the Volsces and his advances into Roman territory, dissension breaks out among Rome’s politicians as they realise their mistake in banishing him.
The Volscian army parties late at night and Aufidius takes the opportunity to discuss Coriolanus with one of his lieutenants. Aufidius looks at a copy of a magazine called Praeclarus (“excellent” in Latin) as the lieutenant regrets that Aufidius shared command and glory with the Roman. Aufidius too seems to sense the danger Coriolanus poses and concludes with a threat to deal with him once Rome is taken.
Back in Rome, the lines given to Cominius in 5.1 are transferred in the film to Lartius. He looks quite shocked when telling Menenius, the tribunes and others about Coriolanus seeming not to know him when he went to plead for Rome to be spared.
Menenius is persuaded to meet Coriolanus to see if he can be more effective. We see Menenius emerge from behind some tanks parked on a deserted road and head across no man’s land to the waiting Volsces a few hundred metres away.
He is brought into the turncoat’s dark lair, which is full of tattooed soldiers, and after a brief exchange Coriolanus sends him packing. Back by the Roman tanks, Menenius informs Cominius of their opponent’s hard-heartedness. He uses lines borrowed from 5.4, saying that Coriolanus “is grown from man to dragon”.
Following his failure to secure a peace, Menenius finds his way to a deserted canal, and after carefully removing his watch, proceeds to slit his wrist with a knife. He bleeds to death despairing and alone.
This is the pure invention of the film, but Menenius’ potential suicide is hinted at in the text: in 5.2, after being dismissed by Coriolanus, Menenius tells ones of the mocking Volscian guards “He that hath a will to die by himself, fears it not from another”.
Coriolanus’ battle preparations are interrupted by the arrival of the women and young Martius, his son. The soldiers wolf-whistle at Virgilia as she is led through security checks. A soldier tries to frisk the women, but a more honourable man pushes the soldier’s hand away.
Unlike the previous encounter with Menenius, this one takes place in the open air with Coriolanus sat in the barber’s chair in which he was ritually shorn by Aufidius.
They all bow to him and Coriolanus is instantly moved. Volumnia wears a dark coat and when she fixes her son with her unblinking stare, she reminds him that their sorrowful appearance is the result of his banishment.
Volumnia pleads with him to be merciful to the Romans. She and the others kneel before him in supplication. But when he will not yield, she castigates him and says he is not her son.
This is a tour de force performance from Vanessa Redgrave. The accumulated pressure on Coriolanus breaks him. He kneels at her feet and sheds tears as he cries for his mother. This sequence would not have been as effective without the earlier scene in which Volumnia tended to Coriolanus’ wounds, establishing what she means to him.
He turns to Aufidius to ask what he would have done. The Volsce’s simple reply “I was mov’d withal” betrays nothing of his dark intent.
Volumnia is greeted joyously in Rome and the peace treaty is signed by Coriolanus and Cominius.
Aufidius stands in a ruined building at the side of the road at the border between Rome and the Volsces, rather than in Antium where the final scene of the play is set. He discusses with his fellow soldiers how Coriolanus has betrayed them.
When Coriolanus returns from Rome and walks up the deserted road towards the Volsces. Aufidius greets him with name of traitor and addresses him merely as ‘Martius’. The argument escalates with Aufidius calling him ‘boy’ at which point Coriolanus taunts him with his exploits against the Volsces, whereupon all the soldiers turn their knives on Coriolanus, fighting in the centre of the deserted road.
Coriolanus defends himself, stabbing one of the men, but is overcome by Aufidius.
As Aufidius plunges his knife into Coriolanus, the sound fades out and we are left with the almost silent image of their bodies gripped close in combat. Coriolanus reels in pain. Instead of letting him fall, Aufidius cups the back of his head in his hand and lowers him gently, almost lovingly, to the ground where he dies.
The film is a masterclass in how to adapt Shakespeare intelligently and entertainingly for the big screen. The screenwriter, John Logan, is an ardent admirer of Shakespeare and this shows in the way that the story has been tweaked, but not distorted, to enhance the original play.
The closeness of Volumnia and Coriolanus in the wound dressing scene makes Coriolanus’ final breakdown more convincing. The decision to have Menenius commit suicide after failing to secure peace is an interesting one.
Coriolanus is a play about the application of brute force. This theme is underscored by the way the film uses the power of Shakespeare’s language, the impact of which is enhanced by convincing battle sequences and explosions. Close-ups are also used to great effect to focus on individual reactions in a way theatre cannot.
But what most impresses most, besides Shakespeare’s language, are the performances. Vanessa Redgrave radiates throughout as Volumnia, her determined gaze being one of the memorable features of the piece. If, as widely tipped, the film is rewarded by the Baftas and Oscars, then her performance will doubtless be among those lauded.
Ralph Fiennes managed to make the haughty Coriolanus believable and almost sympathetic, mainly because his enemies at all levels of society were painted in an unflattering light. Neither the plebeians nor tribunes were shown as virtuous, so that he appeared to be just one element of the general mess into which Roman society had descended.
It is unfortunate that current political developments make the depiction of food riots and chaos in southern Europe seem prophetic rather than historic.
In seeking to update a story set in Europe’s past, the film has produced something eerily like our near present.
Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus goes on general release in the UK on 20 January 2012.
The Tempest, Theatre Royal Haymarket, 8 October 2011
The ruined brick set for this production presaged industrial sparseness rather than any kind of island. Prospero’s cell was built into the stage right box and its overflowing library was warmly lit, making it look inviting in contrast to the grey bleakness of the rest of the stage. A door was set into the bare brick back wall.
Ralph Fiennes’ Prospero wandered on from stage right while the house lights were still up and the audience chattering. A hush descended and the lights eventually dimmed. His staff and book were in position downstage. He knelt to consult the book, muttering the beginnings of a spell under his breath. Picking up his staff, Prospero stood and began a series of stylised movements, gradually retreating upstage, whereupon the tempest began.
The mariners descended on ropes from the flies and a large bridge structure was flown in carrying the Shipmaster. The motion of the ship was conveyed by the crew swaying as they held on to the ropes.
Projections were used to indicate the storm and rain, turning the bland set into something more colourful. Mariners carried a mast, perhaps trying to hold onto it.
The sound of the dialogue here was quite audible and not lost under the sound effects. Ariel moved about spouting flames from his hand.
Gonzalo’s speech was picked out in spotlight as he commented on his desire to “die a dry death”. This special treatment earmarked him for our attention later on.
The drowning of the crew and sinking of the ship were indicated by the bridge rising up out of view, while some of the mariners cascaded down ropes as if descending beneath it.
Miranda looked concerned at the plight of the ship she had seen (1.2). Prospero was frustrated at this concern. Fiennes’ Prospero was a cynical middle-aged man constantly assailed by impetuous youth. His personal mission was to tame this wild youthful enthusiasm. The dynamic of the production was idealism versus cynicism/realism.
He sat down on the ground with Miranda to explain how they had come to be on the island. But when he got onto the subject of his brother’s perfidy, he shot to his feet and told the story animatedly. The emotions aroused in him would not let him rest calmly on the ground. This indicated his continued inner torment at the injustice he had suffered.
The audience tittered at Prospero’s remark about Miranda’s mother assuring him of his paternity. For some reason they also laughed at the mention of rats leaving the boat, which was odd.
Prospero acted out the way his brother clung to him like ivy, and also mimed the screen that had stood between his brother and the dukedom. In general, this speech was spoken with such skill and mastery of the language that it was almost worth the ticket price in itself.
He put Miranda to sleep and covered her with his cloak. He stood in the middle of the stage and dramatically summoned Ariel (pronounced: air-re-al) who floated across the stage on a highly visible harness. Ariel’s reference to flying was said while flying. This and other flying effects were deliberately primitive, perhaps to suggest original practice. There was a hint that this was meant to resemble a Blackfriars production.
Prospero set up an hourglass downstage when referencing the time, and the glass remained in position until the beginning of second half.
Ariel’s general demeanour was that of a young boy. His petulance at not being released immediately provoked more ire from Prospero in another example of his containment and direction of youthful energy. Ariel appeared in a grey wrap with rudimentary wings on his shoulders. His face was blue with a darker blue streak at top.
When at work for his master, Ariel was often portrayed by three actors, reflecting his own description of himself in 1.2: “Sometime I’d divide and burn in many places”.
Prospero reminded Ariel about his past. The recollection prompted the spirit to act out his former imprisonment shut inside the pine tree. Ariel then flitted off using the balletic movements that characterised his motion.
After waking Miranda and a brief conversation with Ariel, Prospero took his daughter to encounter Caliban, who rose out of the trap. This Caliban, played by Giles Terera, was sharp, precise, angry, but not primitive.
Caliban has some of the best lines in the play, which hints that he has a certain nobility of thought. Here it was made explicit that his mind was commensurately keen. He spoke with a slight stutter and hesitance, which looked like learnt behaviour masking his true potential. This made Caliban part of the axis of youth against which Prospero was engaged.
When the monster said that the island was his by Sycorax his mother, you almost expected him to produce a deed of title in evidence.
Prospero frequently fingered an ornament associated with Caliban, whose significance was not revealed until the end.
Miranda showed Caliban the book that she had used to teach him language, which he summarily ripped up.
A tearful Ferdinand was escorted onstage by a group of islanders who were dressed in primitive costumes consisting of yellowish body wraps and yellow manes of hair. This was accompanied by singing and dancing. They surrounded him as if representing the enchantment to which he was subject.
Prospero brought in Miranda from upstage left to see the young man. She exuded a flush of inexperienced enthusiasm. After Prospero challenged Ferdinand, Miranda’s aside about her father’s ungentleness was directed at the audience. There was a flicker of comedy in Prospero’s repeated attempts to catch Ferdinand’s attention by asking him for “one word”, highlighting how distracted the prince was by Miranda’s charms.
Ferdinand drew his sword but he could not move it. Prospero hit the sword with a small stick found on the ground, causing the sword to drop. Ferdinand became yet another source of youthful exuberance and energy to be contained.
The nobles were dressed in Jacobean costume, which tied in with the period flying effects (2.1). Sebastian and Antonio sat themselves stage right to bicker about Gonzalo, who stood some distance from them. The timing of Sebastian’s camp interventions was excellent. Alonso crouched disconsolately stage left.
Antonio and Sebastian’s bet on who would speak next, saw Gonzalo almost begin to speak, but in the end the first words came from Adrian. Alonso finally snapped at all the yapping. Sebastian rubbed the sore by reminding Alonso that this was all his fault.
Gonzalo’s speech about his ideal commonwealth was held over from this scene until the nobles were next together. This speeded up the scene so that Ariel’s enchantment of the nobles came next.
He walked invisible among them and charmed them to sleep. Alonso noticed the others falling asleep in a pile stage right and wished his eyes would close in the same way. Ariel then charmed Alonso, provoking his remark: “I find they are inclined to do so.”
Antonio set about persuading Sebastian to consent to the murder of his own brother. When Sebastian asked him about his conscience, there was a long pause before Antonio replied “Ay, sir, where lies that?”
Prospero had appeared briefly at the back of the stage during this time, providing an explanation for Ariel’s subsequent comment that his master had foreseen this plot. Ariel charmed the nobles awake so that they saw Antonio and Sebastian with their swords drawn against them. Sebastian managed to bluster his way out of the situation and his deceitful account of his actions was believed.
Caliban dumped his heavy load of wood, and hid under his coat as he heard a storm approaching (2.2).
Trinculo was performed by Nicholas Lyndhurst, the production’s resident prole-bait, who spoke throughout in a stupid high-pitched rustic voice. He knelt on all fours under the coat facing in the opposite direction so that the coat jutted up like a rock. Stephano, Clive Wood, entered roaring drunk, singing and dancing. He sat on the rock, but soon spat out drink when the ‘rock’ moved as Caliban spoke.
The four-legged monster shuffled around on its knees and ended up facing lengthways downstage as Stephano gave it wine. Trinculo’s head appeared facing the stage to say that he recognised Stephano’s voice. Stephano went to leave, but Trinculo called him back. Stephano pulled on Trinculo’s legs and retrieved him from under the coat.
Clive Wood was superb at acting drunk and not tolerating sudden movement. Caliban became infatuated with the source of the liquor, which allowed Stephano to make fun of him. Stephano touched the side of his nose to signal his mischievousness. Caliban enthusiastically kissed Stephano’s feet.
Caliban danced in celebration of his new-found freedom while Stephano and Trinculo joined in a kind of chorus. But they also made bunny ear gestures behind Caliban’s head to mock him.
Ferdinand carried logs, with his feet bound loosely with rope (3.1). Miranda tried to help and Prospero watched them at a distance hiding by the left side of the stage.
When Miranda told Ferdinand her name, he slowly spelled out the syllables to arrive at the connection with the word ‘admired’. Prospero commented in aside, and although his words were positive, he seemed distressed. He intended to marry off his daughter, but at the same time his cynicism had infected his view of all humanity to the extent that he could only see obstacles and setbacks. His phrase “So glad of this as they I cannot be…” was keenly accentuated. The interval came here after what seemed like a long 90 minutes.
At the start of the second half (3.2), Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo were very drunk indeed. Caliban carried in a butt of wine. The audience laughed at Trinculo’s joke about the state tottering. Stephano got his words mixed up so that he said “songue in tack” instead of “tongue in sack”. He also tried to speak to Trinculo but looked in the wrong place and had to be directed back, presumably due to drink-induced blurred vision.
Ariel threw his voice to create the impression that Trinculo was insulting Stephano. After each “thou liest” Trinculo looked around to see where the voice was coming from. Stephano eventually punched and head-butted Trinculo.
Caliban tried to convince Stephano to kill and supplant Prospero. The turning point came when he mentioned Miranda. As he asked “Is it so brave a lass?”, Stephano traced an hourglass figure with his hands. Caliban corrected him with a gesture of his own, making Miranda’s hips seem wider.
They sang their song but failed to get the tune correct. Ariel played the right tune offstage, leading Caliban into his famous speech about the isle being full of noises.
When we next saw them, the nobles were tired and Antonio and Sebastian were still trying to execute their murderous plot (3.3). Gonzalo’s speech about his ideal commonwealth was transferred here to give more of an introduction to the banquet sequence.
The bridge descended again with Prospero lying on its floor looking down at the nobles below, as indicated in the stage directions which have him “on the top”. He moved his hands as if casting a spell to usher in the banquet.
The dancing villagers brought in a banquet table with food as music played. The nobles gather round and Alonso tasted some to make sure it is real, saying “I will stand to and feed”.
Ariel’s harpy descended from above. Surprisingly for a production laden with convincing effects, the harpy was not really menacing and its plain white wings made it look like a giant seagull. Ariel was still substantially a sprite and looked more like a birdman than a harbinger of doom.
The food instantly disappeared from the table and later the villagers pulled away the table cloth to reveal that the table has vanished from beneath.
The three men of sin stood transfixed for a while, separate from the others, after the harpy vision had disappeared. They exited in confusion.
Prospero performed a handfasting ceremony for Miranda and Ferdinand (4.1). His stern warning to the young man about breaking Miranda’s virgin-knot goaded Ferdinand into an obviously insincere suitor’s speech about his honourable intentions. Prospero did not look impressed. He nodded cynically, saying “Fairly spoke”.
Although comical, the serious point underlying this was Prospero’s disenchantment with youth, and Ferdinand in particular. Despite effectively hand-picking Ferdinand for Miranda’s attentions, Prospero could not disguise his lack of respect. Marrying the couple almost seemed like a tedious job of work rather than a labour of love by a devoted father.
Prospero sent the couple to sit upstage and summoned Ariel. He turned the hourglass over to start it again. He had to return upstage and pull Ferdinand off Miranda when he noticed them canoodling. His words “Look thou be true. Do not give dalliance too much the rein” fitted nicely with their sudden enthusiasm for each other. Ferdinand responded to this with yet more vows of chastity, which caused Prospero to roll his eyes. This was very funny to watch.
He sat the couple on the ground downstage and produced the pageant. A long strip of sheet unfurled from the flies like a walkway and Iris hovered in the air stage right, appearing to walk down it. She announced the entry of Ceres who flew in stage left suspended in a loop of cloth. Juno descended on the bridge only when mentioned. Her hair and face were gold, in a style rather reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth, and the bridge was decorated with large golden fans. The islanders below presented the dance of the reapers. This was a very stunning and effective staging that seemed like a recreation of a Jacobean court masque.
Remembering Caliban’s plot, Prospero called a halt to proceedings. The lighting changed abruptly to illuminate the ground and put the masque into darkness. The extensive and visually stunning revels really were now ended.
Unfortunately, when Ralph Fiennes said “I will plague them all, even to roaring” I got a flashback of Helen Mirren saying the same line in the Julie Taymor film version.
Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo approached Prospero’s cell. Caliban led the way and appeared to be taking the mission very seriously. He was therefore very annoyed when a clothes line suddenly shot across the stage, causing the others to turn back and put on the clothes.
Prospero, Ariel and the other spirits appeared and barked at the conspirators like dogs, chasing them away. Prospero’s concluding triumph about his enemies lying at his mercy was quite scary.
At the beginning of act five, Prospero entered just as he had done at the start of the play in his magic robes, carrying his staff and book. Ariel urged compassion, and Prospero appeared to be affected by this advice. He would practice virtue rather than vengeance.
Prospero used his staff to cast a spell creating a dimly lit circle around him. His speech about abjuring his rough magic was excellently spoken and unleashed the power of the verse. When Ralph Fiennes said that he had made promontories shake, you were inclined to believe him.
Still under Prospero’s enchantment, the nobles slowly made way onstage. Their arms were outstretched and the men tentatively groped the air as if unable to see. This looked a little forced. Prospero made them circle round and talked about them in turn.
His anger at Antonio caused him to make striking motions towards his brother with his staff, a first indication that his vow of clemency was proving difficult for him to keep. He had accepted at an intellectual level that mercy was the best course, but his residual anger towards Antonio still rebelled against it.
He asked Ariel to fetch his formal ducal uniform and he changed into it onstage with Ariel providing cover. As he put on the sword of office he looked at Antonio and partly drew it from its scabbard. This was another indication of the resentment he still felt towards his brother.
When the nobles had emerged from their trance, Prospero touched Alonso to assure him that he was real. Alonso remained doubtful until he felt Prospero’s pulse. He bowed to Prospero as he resigned his dukedom. When Prospero spoke to Antonio he paused slightly before pronouncing his pardon, but it seemed that the struggle to forgive had finally been won.
Ferdinand and Miranda appeared lit behind a black sheet playing on a white chessboard. Prospero’s reaction to Miranda’s brave new world speech was yet another indication of his weary cynicism in the face of youthful idealism and enthusiasm, a theme running through Fiennes’ performance. This characterisation raised the question of whether this Prospero had any real hopes for the future happiness of the couple.
Gonzalo’s summing up was quite touching. He smoothed over the discord by attributing the events to behaviour enacted “when no man was his own”.
With the plotters also fetched in, Prospero stood over Caliban to acknowledge him his. Interestingly, Prospero pardoned Caliban and then took from Miranda the ornament that he had held nervously in his hand earlier in the play, and put it around Caliban’s neck. This ritual seemed to reinstate Caliban as ruler of the island. The pardoned plotters went into Prospero’s cell to trim it handsomely. Prospero liberated Ariel, who flew off after touching Prospero’s hand with a mixture of gratitude and affection.
Prospero opened up a trap door and knelt by it with his staff and book. He broke the staff behind his neck and cast it and the book into the hatch. A sound effect indicated the long drop as the instruments of his power plummeted into the depths of the earth.
This gave extra resonance to his concluding speech about his powers being overthrown. Fiennes requested that the audience set him free and I was among the first to clap at the end.
This production was dominated and defined by Ralph Fiennes’ performance as Prospero. I had baulked at the £93 price of the premium seats, settling instead for the standard £63 stalls. But after seeing the production I had to concede that the higher price could almost be justified by the overall quality of the work.
Prospero’s disdainful cynicism, particularly of youth, added an extra dimension to the standard story of revenge and forgiveness. Looked at from this perspective, it is interesting to note how the play’s one truly aged character, Gonzalo, is portrayed in a uniformly positive light as if to underline the old-is-better dynamic.