Thursday, March 29, 2012

Film review: Coriolanus (2011 - The Weinstein Co)

Our president, Frances Dharmalingam, recently saw this film, which stars Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler and Brian Cox. Fiennes was also the producer: the screenplay was adapted by John Logan.

This filmed verion of Coriolanus could be cited as a perfect refutation of frequently-expressed doubts about using Shakespearean language in a modern setting. Although the script had been rigorously cut, what dialogue remained was original text (as insisted upon by Ralph Fiennes) and it worked. The delivery was entirely 21st century in style, the speakers unfettered by any unnecessary reverence for iambic pentameter, and, despite the occasional archaism of vocabulary or usage, expressed timelessly the thoughts and feelings of characters who could have existed in ancient Rome, Elizabethan England, or present-day Belgrade.

It was one of the finest modernizations of a Shakespeare play I have seen, with clever use of technology to further the action – TV broadcasts and Skype in place of clunky “messengers” up-dating the news.

The leading roles were perfectly cast – Coriolanus frozen in his arrogance, Menenius the fatherly figure Coriolanus so obviously needed but didn’t recognise, the two duplicitous tribunes Sicinius and Brutus – and of course Volumnia. What an impressive portrayal! This mother had dominated and moulded her son, and lived out her own ambitions through him. The only major character about whom I had any reservations was Aufidius. His darker, less trustworthy qualities became apparent only at the very last moment.

The crowds were huge and the director achieved a nice balance between the formless, threatening mass of the people and the individual rabble rousers who led the fickle sway of opinion. The scenes of civil unrest and the war episodes displayed the advantage of film over theatre. Where the latter would have to rely on conventional symbols – a few banners, suggestions of crowd action with Noises Off – the film showed us from endlessly varied angles the absolute reality of riots and battles in the 21st century. Of course the weapons were horrifyingly efficient, but the violence of war was as it has always been since before the days of gunfire, while in the house-to-house Search and Destroy missions there were echoes of ageless hand-to-hand combat, and at one point in the early rioting the police moved against the crowd with shields interlocked, suggestive of the old Roman “tortoise” formation. So for me the uncompromisingly modern interpretation had layers of timelessness, just as the psychology of the characters would have been true in any century.

Although the play does not, in so many words, give details of Coriolanus’s upbringing, the film established the separation between his family and the common folk. Shots of dilapidated buildings, stagnant puddles, piles of refuse and graffiti in the city contrasted with the elegant luxury of his family home, set in a quiet shady garden. Volumnia with her daughter-in-law and grandson, and then with Coriolanus himself, showed her strongly ambitious dominance, and when he capitulated to her pleas to spare Rome one could feel the unbearable tension and the final collapse, when Coriolanus knew that this could lead only to disaster. 'Oh mother, mother, What have you done?' summarised his apprehension of doom. Through the whole film, his facial expressions were extraordinarily limited, and yet he conveyed fierce intensity of feeling. Although never in any way a likeable character, he evoked (from me, anyway) sympathy as he moved inevitably to his fate, unable to change. A particularly memorable moment also was Coriolanus’s response to his sentence of exile. 'There is a world elsewhere' was spoken with all the contempt he had expressed to the citizens and yet it was coloured by a wrenching sense of loss, which made all the more believable his decision eventually to join Rome’s enemies.

This was a superb film in which the direction and the acting combined to bring to vivid life a fascinating play.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Frances Dharmalingam reviews Propellor's 'The Winters Tale'

A few weeks ago, Satima kindly invited me to accompany her to a performance of The Winter’s Tale, given by the English all-male group Propellor as part of the Festival of Perth. Their version was a fine example of effective story-telling. The narrative was plain throughout and could have been readily followed without much prior knowledge of the plot, thanks to clever staging and some fine acting.

The extreme contrast between the play’s two halves was strongly exploited. The court of Sicilia was claustrophobic, a setting closed in by dark metallic walls which reflected the action back upon itself. Colours were dull, lighting hard, the actors moving formally and with control. It was easy to believe that Leontes’s mad obsessive jealousy and rage could flourish in this ambience. All was presided over by a huge, changing, malevolent moon, reminding one of its associations with lunacy. The atmosphere thus engendered added to the horror of Leontes’ s cruelty, chillingly emphasised by Hermione’s bloodied skirt after childbirth in prison. The king’s emotional and physical decline and his repentant grief after the death of his son and (as he thinks) his wife followed convincingly, along with Paulina’s unrelenting determination that he continue indefinitely to pay for his sins.

The terrifyingly loud and vivid storm on the shores of Bohemia brought us to the turning point of the play. Here in the ensuing calm, all was golden sunlight and good humour, with no enclosing walls. The celebrations at the end of shearing in a rural community were always accompanied by feasting, dancing, singing, music and much youthful flirtation and merry-making. The age-old customs are all in the text; but this production was set some time in the later 20th century. The musical instruments, the dancing, choice of songs and particularly the noise level in performance, were more raucous Big Day Out than earthy Harvest Home, and the 17th century literary conventions of the pastoral idyll were dispensed with. There were some lovely moments of hilarity, particularly in connection with the flock of 'sheep' (in Arran jumpers) and the gulling of the Clown by Autolycus, when his money and even the gormless lad’s clothes were dextrously appropriated by the beguilingly glib rogue, but the more romantic and poetic qualities of the scene were sacrificed. Perdita delivered her lines and presented her flowers almost perfunctorily, and Florizel’s passionate declarations were muted, as if they were judged not to chime with the tone of the scene as a whole.

The return to Sicilia was neatly accomplished and the finale contained all the necessary tension to hold the audience right till the final resolution.

We were made conscious of Time (as a major theme of the play) in a number of ways. At the start of each half there was the loud ticking of a clock; the moon’s passage from full to half to dark; the changing seasons – all subtle but tangible reminders – and the lovely starry sky for the final scene, without the menacing moon.

I thought it a clever decision to have the same actor play both Mamillius and Perdita. With no change other than (obviously) the costume, the two characters’ 'family likeness' was a gentle addition to the concept of the reunion. Mamillius as a character is easily overlooked, since he appears only early in the play, but this echo, through Perdita, kept him in our minds, along with the surprise ending: when all but Leontes had left the stage, the king had a sudden brief glimpse of him, the dead son who surely would not have been forgotten. The director also gave Mamillius the speech normally delivered by Time (as a character), so he linked the two parts of the play as he described the passing of sixteen years with the help of toy models.

When I saw this company’s performances of The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night some years ago, I was struck by the skill with which male actors could create absolutely convincing female characters with only their dramatic abilities; there was no compromise at all with wigs, padding or make-up to help. In this play again there were no wigs for the leading roles, but the women of the court wore head-scarves and were given long dresses, which did not really add anything. Overall I felt that the female characters were less successfully realised than the main male characters. Hermione certainly spoke with vigour and firmness in her own defence at trial, but lacked the warmth and charm one might have expected in the early and final scenes. Paulina was almost martial in her bearing – suitably unbending in punishing Leontes – but again, failed to elicit from me the sympathy I would have expected to feel for her as one deprived of her husband and forced to hide her affections for the mistress to whom she was devoted. These are minor quibbles, though. I was left, after the show, with much to admire and even more to ponder over, in terms of the company’s interpretation and presentation. It was a memorable evening, and the strength of this production, for me, lay not only in the actual performance, but also in its leading me back to the text and a re-consideration of how I think about it.