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REPOST: Shakespeare In Shoreditch

The Gainsborough Studios. If you lived here, you'd be home by now. Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 01/07/2000. I was always quite fond of the original introduction to this piece:

Ralph Fiennes and Linus Roache both take the stage
And for their feats are garlanded with roses
At Gainsborough: a theatre for our age,
Yet soon rebuilt as flats for Hoxton posers.

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this...

...this Hoxton? Never really saw the attraction of the area, myself. I always got the impression that a bunch of trendies moved into Shoreditch while the prices were low, realised what an absolute shitehole it was, and started hyping it up in a desperate attempt to make some money back on their purchase. As a result the Hoxton and Shoreditch districts have become the official London HQ of Blair's Cool Britannia, where the hip young things hang out on a Saturday night. Well, I can tell you from bitter experience that although that may well be the case, in daylight it looks like any other run down area of North London, with the added annoyance that it's impossible to find anywhere open to have a late lunch at 5pm on a Saturday afternoon. Thankfully the tide seems to be turning, as the Meeja Whores look for somewhere else to colonise ("Burkina Faso - it's the new Hoxton!"), while those that remain are ridiculed in the subtly named satirical fanzine Shoreditch Twat.

But Shoreditch used to have a more honourable history. And one of the jewels in its crown used to be the Gainsborough Film Studios. Formerly a Metropolitan Line power station, the building opened as a film studio in 1919: it was initially owned by the American company Famous-Players Lasky, but was bought out by Michael Balcon and his Gainsborough Pictures outfit in 1924. For a quarter of a century, Gainsborough Studios pumped out a surprising variety of movies: Will Hay's music-hall inspired comedies, a whole stream of costume dramas (including the notorious The Wicked Lady) and the early works of its most famous alumnus, Leytonstone lad Alfred Hitchcock. Eventually, following a series of buyouts that left it in the hands of the disintegrating Rank Organisation, the studio closed in 1949. For a while, it was used as a warehouse, but for the most part it lay derelict awaiting planning permission for a forthcoming housing development.

Enter the Almeida, stage left. Since 1990, under the directorship of Ian "Emperor Palpatine" McDiarmid and Jonathan "never been in a Star Wars film" Kent, a 300-seater auditorium in trendy Islington has grown into the great white hope of London theatre. This is partly due to its clever combination of new cutting-edge plays and established classics, but also because it's become the primary port of call for Hollywood stars looking to establish some quick street cred by doing some "proper" acting for once. In recent years, Kevin Spacey (The Iceman Cometh), Juliette Binoche (Naked) and Ralph Fiennes (Ivanov) have all trodden the boards of the Almeida, and for no more than the standard Equity stage rate of around £250 a week. The theatre has also started venturing out into other venues: it regularly transfers its productions into the West End, and puts on special events such as Ralph Fiennes' Hamlet at the Hackney Empire.

It was the concept of this latter production - an attempt to take top-class Shakespearean theatre out to areas of London where it wouldn't normally go - that inspired the Almeida to step in and bagsie the Gainsborough Studios for a few months prior to their demolition. Designer Paul Brown worked to a brief described in the programme as "benign trespass": although he could potentially do anything he liked to the building, he tried to keep the look pretty much as it was when he and Jonathan Kent first discovered the venue back in 1995. The result when you walk into the auditorium is simply jaw-dropping. It's a cavernous room, big enough to give some of the less experienced actors problems when trying to deal with the acoustics. The walls bear an even more extreme version of that "distressed" quality that makes the Almeida's original home so fascinating. The ramshackle feel is emphasised by an enormous (fake) crack running all the way up the rear stage wall, big enough at its base to allow actors to enter and leave the stage through it. Within this arena you also have a stalls level, plus three tiers of seats stacked vertically above each other on three sides of the room, giving the impression of an audience literally hanging off the walls to catch every word.

It's a joy to be inside here: and that's even before you consider what's happening on the stage. Between March and August 2000, an all-star cast (headed by Ralph Fiennes, who as you may have gathered by now is a good friend of the Almeida) is performing Shakespeare's Coriolanus and Richard II. The two plays alternate in repertory during weekday nights, but on selected Saturdays you can see the two together in one six hour marathon (nine hours if you count the interval between them both). What sort of crazed idiots would attempt to see two Shakespeare plays (and not even funny ones) on the same day?

Well, us, obviously.

Ewww! Ralph Fiennes overdoes it with the claret in Coriolanus ...one that converses more with the buttock of the night than with the forehead of the morning...

...is how Menenius Agrippa describes himself in Coriolanus, and for the most part I'd describe myself the same way. Turning up at 1pm on a Saturday afternoon for an all-day session of theatre is something I rarely experience outside of the Edinburgh Festival. Curiously, the fact that the event's being held in an improvised venue looking nothing like a conventional theatre makes it feel even more like a day in Edinburgh. That, and the sight of Spank's Pals in the bar fortifying themselves with coffee and Bloody Marys in preparation for the long day ahead.

Set in Ancient Rome, Coriolanus tells the story of the warrior Caius Marcius (Ralph Fiennes), who leads the Romans victoriously in battle against old enemy Tullus Aufidius (Linus Roache) and the uprising Volscians. For his part in rescuing the city of Corioli, Marcius is given the additional name of Coriolanus and invited to stand as consul. However, the overwhelming pride of Coriolanus won't allow him to act as a mere servant of the people, and once it's established how much he holds the commoners in contempt he's exiled from Rome. Too late, the Romans discover that hell hath no fury like a mile-high ego scorned...

For me, Shakespeare always works best when the psychology is so boldly sketched as to be virtually in crayon. Here, the main flaw in the character of Coriolanus is his pride, and it's this which ultimately leads to his destruction. He's elevated to a position of power by the people, only for them to turn on him nastily when it becomes apparent that he hates their guts. All Shakespeare needs to do is wind up the character, drop him into the middle of the action, and watch what happens.

Balanced against this, however, is the reason for Coriolanus' pride: his fabulous prowess as a warrior. Unfortunately, Fiennes can only pin down one side of the man's character, as he's never entirely convincing playing the hard man. To be fair, the battle scenes are tremendously realised, but it's all down to the abstract staging: sudden bangs and flashes, strobe lighting, an enormous metal gate which rises noisily to reveal the sound of all hell breaking loose in the wings. Ralph acquits himself passably in a rough swordfight with Linus Roache, but at least one of Spank's Pals wondered out loud what Russell Crowe would have made of the role.

Having said that, when Coriolanus puts down his arms and has to deal with his inferiors, Fiennes has a whale of a time. (Possibly too much so: at least one reviewer has noted that with his permanent sneer and repeated nodding of the head, the portrayal owes a lot to Leonard Rossiter's immortal Rigsby from Rising Damp.) His command of some of the best-written insults in the English language is breathtaking: but Fiennes is always careful to never make the character completely unlikeable, making the descent into tragedy wholly compelling. When Coriolanus storms out of Rome crying "There is a world elsewhere", it crosses the line from simple petulance into genuine grief.

Fiennes gets good solid support from the rest of the cast. Oliver Ford Davies has been a reassuring presence in British theatre for decades now, and his portrayal of Coriolanus' advisor Menenius Agrippa fits snugly into this tradition. (He's so comfortable in the role that at the performance I saw, he fluffed a line, gave an apology and did it again properly, and stayed in iambic pentameter throughout.) Alan David and Bernard Gallagher are an endearing double act as a pair of troublesome tribunes. But the real star turn comes from Barbara Jefford as Coriolanus' mum: a possessive, clinging presence in the early stages, transformed into a hellish fury by the end of the first half.

'Bugger, I've forgotten my costume.' Fiennes in rehearsal for Richard II As in a theatre, the eyes of men / After a well-grac'd actor leaves the stage / Are idly bent on him that enters next / Thinking his prattle to be tedious...

Shakespeare did some acting in his time, so he was obviously speaking from experience when he described the effect that coming on second can have on your popularity. He was referring to the character of Richard II at the time, but the same could equally be said of the play that bears his name: the unanimous verdict of Spank's Pals was that the second play of our double bill didn't really match up to the first. (Curiously, Richard II opened in rep a couple of months before Coriolanus, and the press generally seemed to prefer Richard II...)

The play opens with King Richard (Ralph Fiennes) arbitrating in a dispute between Henry Bolingbroke, the Duke of Hereford (Linus Roache) and Thomas Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk (Paul Moriarty). Richard's decision is to banish Bolingbroke for six years, and Mowbray for life. Bolingbroke takes this rather badly, and sets a plot in motion that will ultimately remove Richard from the throne. And, er, that's it.

After the rapid-fire pace of Coriolanus, Richard II definitely seems slower and more static, and suffers from what Shakespearean scholar Nick referred to afterwards as the absence of "action and babes". (The fact that it overruns the advertised two-and-three-quarter hour running time by half an hour doesn't help, either.) Richard simply isn't as compelling a lead character, though he does get a rather fine entrance as he's carried on from the back of the stage through the fissure in the back wall. He's so whiny and insecure that you don't particularly care what happens to him: once he's deposed from his throne the play as a whole seems to meander towards its end, and that's a good hour or so of meandering. All this is the fault of the play rather than the actor, and Fiennes does his best, but it's not quite enough. Christine insists that the final 15 minutes of his performance were the highlight of the day, but that may be because he'd taken his top off by then.

Everyone else does their best to make this material work. The stage undergoes a dramatic transformation after the bare floorboards of Coriolanus: it's entirely covered with grass, and bathed in smoke to annoy as many allergy sufferers as possible in a single play. The company from the earlier production appears again, and once more Oliver Ford Davies provides sterling support. And there are a few comic moments that are nicely played, notably an argument between several noblemen which turns into a farce as duels are declared left right and centre, leaving a huge pile of thrown-down gauntlets in the centre of the stage.

The danger with both productions is one which has cursed Shakespeare productions in the commercial London theatre for some considerable time: the risk that you'll end up with a single star turn in the lead who completely overshadows everyone else in the cast. The ensemble collected here is good enough to stop that happening, although it does mean that well-known actresses like Emilia Fox are stranded with very little to do (let's be honest, these are boys' plays, and you can't get away from that). There's also a tendency for the publicity to promote these plays as a double act between Ralph Fiennes (playing both leads) and Linus Roache (playing both villains), notably on the programme cover which combines their faces inna Face/Off stylee. It's a nice idea, but it doesn't work: whereas Fiennes plays two wholly distinct characters, Roache ends up as a Generic Antagonist, so generic you could probably pick him up cheap in Kwik Save. Tullus Aufidius and Henry Bolingbroke are challenges that a great actor could sink his teeth into as an attempt to upstage the star, and Roache simply isn't up to the challenge.

But despite these problems, this is a great theatrical event, and if you can get over to Shoreditch before August 5th you should try to catch either or both of these productions - definitely Coriolanus if you feel you can only manage one. After this date, the plays go on tour to Tokyo and New York (note to our Broadway correspondent), while the Gainsborough Studios themselves prepare to be destroyed and rebuilt as new flats. As both Nick and I are currently on the verge of re-entering the property market, I asked him if he'd consider moving into a new home in this very building.

"I'd consider it," he replied. "But I really think you'd need to get a surveyor in to look at that back wall." And I don't blame him. Being a monkey, and all.

Links

The Almeida's official site tells you about the theatre season currently in progress, and their future productions, both at the original Islington site and elsewhere. The main theatre, incidentally, is closing for renovation for a year in February 2001 following a climactic production of The Tempest, starring Ian McDiarmid as Prospero. Spank and the Pals already have tickets for the closing night. We are so smug. Look at us.

The Greenroom [dead link] is an arts site currently covering the Shakespeare In Shoreditch project as part of its beta testing, prior to the site officially opening later this year. Cast interviews and biographies, the texts of both plays, booking information, and even a virtual reality walkthrough of the Gainsborough Studios themselves. Bodes well for the future, if they can keep this level of dedication up.

Gainsborough Studios obviously have a set of flats to flog once all this theatre stuff has cleared out of the building, and this site gives you full details of the proposed development.

Yahoo! contains a list of all the Ralph Fiennes fan pages it knows about. Take your pick, they're all about the same.

The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare, being well out of copyright, are available on the web for anyone to download for free: so if you want the texts of Coriolanus and Richard II, here they are.

Insults.net collects the finest invective from every possible source, including Shakespeare. Both Coriolanus and Richard II have their most violently abusive lines documented here. "The tartness of his face sours ripe grapes" - now you could use that one in the office, couldn't you?

The Poulton Research Project is an archeological dig located near Chester, which has a Fiennes family connection: Mike Emery, who was adopted by Ralph's parents, is heading up the team responsible. The site documents their progress over the last few years, and also publicises their new book, The Poulton Chronicles: Tales from a Medieval Chapel, which has a foreword by Ralph. Say hello to [no longer] co-webmistress Luce while you're there.

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