/ London Millennium Shakespeare

Coriolanus and Cressida with the Almeida

The Almeida Theatre Company has been producing some of the most interesting and thoughtful Shakespeare and Shakespeare-related plays in the world in recent years, and this millennium year is no exception. I was able to see two during my visit: Cressida and Coriolanus.


After a day of touring, my companion and I snagged half-priced stall tickets from the stand on Leicester Square to Cressida at the Albery Theatre, the Almeida Theatre Company's West End venue—quite a coup, considering the quality and interest of the production.

This is not a Shakespeare play, but a piece by a contemporary author that imagines what life among the boy actors who played women in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries must have been like. As you might expect from such an exercise, the truly historical blends and is finally all but obscured by the author's contemporary concerns projected wishfully on the past. What is imagined is the emergence of a new kind of gay male persona who, as the play would have it, either did not exist or was not allowed to do so successfully until just before the Revolution: the kind of naive, flighty, saintly, and at bottom queenish persona perhaps all too common on stage and screen today—Angel in Rent being the paradigmatic example.

Michael Gambon in the starring role as the boys' master was very fine: it seems that, but for his character's own ambitions, the birth of this gay Prometheus might have happened a generation earlier, during an original performance of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. The rest of the company acquitted themselves admirably as well. The play provides a diverting evening's entertainment and a novel perspective on Shakespeare and his world, even for those who do not find the author's concerns completely compelling.


We caught Coriolanus out at the Gainsborough Studios, Alfred Hitchcock's former haunt that the Almeida is turning to its last theatrical use, before it becomes a block of luxury condos in one of the last ungentrified neighborhoods of central London. Where the Globe aims to reproduce a historical theater intact with opulent authenticity, the Gainsborough has been renovated by the Almeida to a chic postmodern sheen.

And quite excellent use the company makes of their space indeed. This Coriolanus is full of bluff and bluster, with a spectacularly pyrotechnic battle scene that opens the gates of hell on stage for Coriolanus to enter when he sacks Corioles singlehandedly. Ralph Fiennes stars, and does so in fine form—nearly as fine as his Richard II, which unfortunately was on hiatus, is rumored to be. I had worried that, being lither of limb than, say, Mel Gibson or Russel Crowe, Fiennes wouldn't cut an imposing enough figure to fill the character out; but the costuming department was ahead of me there, and gave him a stuffed shift for amour that served nicely. This production also does wonders with the mob scene stirred up by the tribunes at the end of Act III, showing just how dangerous and powerful the force they are wielding might become.

The more deliberative and thematic aspects of this play, however, receive short shrift in the general straining after spectacular effect. A silly piece of stage business—having the officers pay more attention to scrubbing the floor than telegraphing their lines when they discuss Coriolanus's chances of becoming consul in II.ii—renders some of the most important perspectives required to understand this play incomprehensible to the audience:

Second Officer Faith, there had been many great men that have flattered the people, who ne'er loved them; and there be many that they have loved, they know not wherefore: so that, if they love they know not why, they hate upon no better a ground: therefore, for Coriolanus neither to care whether they love or hate him manifests the true knowledge he has in their disposition; and out of his noble carelessness lets them plainly see't.

To cap things off, Coriolanus's great rival Aufidius, himself reduced to a mafioso who likes leather, makes a grand gesture of all-too-quickly slitting our hero's throat at the end, bringing the entire well-wrought edifice of this play crashing down with little of import for the audience to salvage. What's the point of this sacrifice, and in what sense does Coriolanus, despite his own best efforts, die a true martyr to the very democracy whose exponents he so thoroughly despises? Spectators of this production have no way of knowing that such radical matters (for Shakespeare's time, and perhaps even for our own) are at issue here.

I've a couple of bones to pick in closing, one with all the companies except the one that put on Coriolanus, and one with this company itself. Of all the plays I attended, Coriolanus was the only one that distributed a program gratis—well, okay, not a program, but a single sheet that gave the actors names and some brief indications about the play; hence the paucity of proper names in these reviews. As for the other companies: I can only wish your producers would be less greedy, and supply all who've paid the (not inconsiderable) price of admission with a Playbill-style program like they do in the States, leaving the souvenir programs for those with extra cash to spend.

On the other hand, the latecomer seating policy of the Almeida at Gainsborough is atrocious, and its enforcement by the stylishly headphoned ushers utterly inflexible. This venue, located about a mile from the nearest tube line past blocks of high-rise housing projects, is not easy to get to—especially when the tube breaks down, as it did for us—nor does it appear to harbor any havens for the uninitiated should they come early. Yet those who arrive even 5 minutes after the scheduled 7:30 pm start are prevented from taking their seats until over 2 hours into the performance, at the beginning of Act IV. This is simply inexcusable. Surely the curtain could be delayed for 10 minutes or so if the ushers observe a significant number of seats unfilled (as about 30 were the night I went, judging by the number of my fellow outcasts), or sufficient pause provided at the the end of Act I—or even Scene I, given its length and independence from the rest of the action—to allow the unfortunate to be discreetly seated. Why piss a large portion of your audience off needlessly, and make them think more about staging a revolt of their own offstage than the one you are portraying on? A little more humanity, please! Some of us have come thousands of miles just to be here.


The Tempest and Hamlet at the Globe  |  Coriolanus and Cressida with the Almeida  |  The Lion King



Cressida seen Saturday, May 27, 2000 17:30, Coriolanus Thursday, June 1, 2000 17:38. First posted Wednesday, June 21, 2000; last updated .