Monday 27 March 2017

Pericles (Series 7 Episode 2)

First Transmitted 8th December 1984

Mike Gwilym and Amanda Redman are lost in the Mediterranean in Shakespeare's rambling epic

Director: David Jones
Cast: Mike Gwilym (Pericles), Edward Petherbridge (Gower), Juliet Stevenson (Thaisa), Amanda Redman (Marina), Norman Rodway (Cleon), Annette Crosbie (Dionyza), Patrick Godfrey (Helicanus), Patrick Ryecart (Lysimachus), Patrick Allen (Simonides), Clive Swift (Cerimon), Trevor Peacock (Boult), Toby Salamn (Pandar), Lula Kaye (Bawd), Nick Brimble (Leonine), John Woodvine (Antiochus), Edita Brychta (Antiochus’ daughter), Gordon Gostelow (Fisherman), John Bardon (Lord/Fisherman/Sailor), Christopher Ravenscroft (Knight/Gentleman) 

With this adaptation of Pericles, the series moves well and truly into the ephemera of the completed works. Pericles is now widely accepted as a collaboration between Shakespeare and the pamphleteer George Wilkins. Wilkins contributed large chunks of the first two acts, with Shakespeare believed to have polished those and written the remaining three acts. This makes it rather like reading a book written in collaboration by John Grisham and Salman Rushdie. 

Pericles itself is a rather strange play and I’m not sure this, at times painfully long, adaptation completely gets to grips with it. Again, completeness is probably the enemy here: a braver production would have hacked much of Acts 1 and 2, especially as the story (proper) doesn’t actually begin until Act 3. The downside of this is that it would have reduced Pericles himself into a Cymbeline-like character, but as he is hardly the most enthralling personality ever shown on the stage, this arguably would have been no great loss.

Acts 1 and 2 meander from episodic adventure to episodic adventure, with Pericles visiting a dizzying array of different locations around the Mediterranean. The opening acts concern his unearthing incest in Antioch, returning to Tyre only to flee assassins, then sailing to Tarsus where he saves a city from starvation. He is then shipwrecked on Pentapolis where (disguised as a penniless knight) he wins a joust, the respect of King Simonedes and the love of his daughter Thaisa. Written out like that it should be compelling, but (certainly in the production) the action is terminally dull. Poorly shaped characters speak at each other rather than engaging in active conversation, and the constant switches of location and story line prevent us from growing attached to the characters or interested in their fates. Similarly, Jones introduces far too many minute-filling interpolations, including a never-ending dance at Pentapolis. The Antioch scenes do use slow zooms and long shots well to demonstrate both the isolation of Pericles and his danger from the incestuous King and his daughter, but this isn’t enough to make it dynamic or especially interesting.

By contrast, the second half of the production (and I felt this even before checking who wrote what!) is both far pacier and much more focused. Thaisa is presumed to have died in childbirth while at sea and her tomb cast into the sea (it washes up on Ephesus and luckily she turns out to be fine!). Pericles leaves his newborn daughter Marina in Tarsus (for reasons never really explained) and doesn’t see her for 16 years. After that time, Dionyza (wife of the ruler of Tarsus) arranges for Marina to be murdered – but she is kidnapped by pirates before the deed is done and sold to a brothel in Mytilene. There she keeps her purity by the virtue of her virtue and becomes famous. Pericles, believing her dead, eventually arrives in Mytilene and there is a great reconciliation, before a vision sends him to Ephesus for a second reconciliation with his wife. Far from the bitty and uninvolving events of Acts 1 and 2, with their constantly revolving series of characters and locations, the second half of the show introduces a consistent set of characters and four clear locations, each with a distinctive purpose.

So this is a production that inherits and falls victim to the weaknesses of the original material. Jones’ direction also declines to introduce much pace to the production. We’ve already mentioned the long dance scene, but that’s not even the worst offender. A good ten minutes is given over to Cerimon’s waking of Thaisa from the dead – a prolonged wordless sequence largely spent watching Cerimon rub Thaisa’s wrists. Any sense of urgency about saving a life is missing completely. Too often, the pace drains out of the production. This also isn’t helped by Edward Petherbridge’s sing-song performance as the narrator Gower – beautifully spoken as the semi-Irish lilt Petherbridge chooses might be, it lacks a real dynamism, meaning Gower’s regular interpolations frequently slow the production down. It’s a shame as, when the plot really gets going, and particularly once Amanda Redman’s Marina arrives, – there is a lot of merit and interest here – it just consistently seems to get lost.

What Jones and his design team do do well is to make each of the play’s myriad locations visually distinctive. Each location has its own style and colour scheme, meaning that, in those parts of the play that move swiftly from place to place, the viewer always knows where they are and where the characters we’re watching are from. Tyre, Pericles’s home, uses cooler blues and marbled, dark hallways. Antioch is a sandy, robed, yellowing place with shady glens. Tarsus has classic Eastern architecture with white robes. Pentapolis is a grand Greek interior. Ephesus has a real sense of heat, sandy and white. Mytiline a more brownstone residential city. The visuals of each location, and the clothing of its inhabitants, makes each immediately clear – despite the whirligig plot you are never confused by it.
Our six locations (from top left): Antioch, Tyre, Tarsus, Pentapolis, Ephesus and Mytilene

The Gower narrative sections are also skilfully illustrated to add a bit of visual interest . Petherbridge’s delivery may not be the most lively or engaging, but the events he relates are frequently played out behind him in delicately staged dumb shows by the actors. This instantly makes sections of the play that could otherwise be quite dry into something a little more dynamic and interesting to watch. Petherbridge is also often introduced into the scenes immediately before his narrative, in the background of the shot, to tie Gower a bit more into the action as an omniscient chorus or narrator. But too often these Gower interludes only really slow down the action rather than enlighten it (at one point the character even apologises for speaking at such great length) – and I’m not sure the production gets around this much.

When the production allows its narrative to have a bit more momentum, it also manages to carry an impressive amount of emotional heft. The imagined death of Thaisa in a storm at sea is movingly presented and draws some fine performances – it’s easily Mike Gwilym’s most effective moment. Similarly the build towards the reunion between Marina and Pericles is both very well staged – an effective intermixing of POV shots and close-ups – and draws the viewer into the relationship between the two characters. The second reunion between Pericles and Thaisa carries slightly less weight – but this is largely the fault of the play rather than the production.

In fact the plotline following the adult Marina is very well done indeed. This is also in large measure due to Amanda Redman’s excellent performance in the role. Marina is a very difficult part to play – a woman so pure, innocent and perfect that even in the role of prostitute she is able to persuade men to renounce lechery. On paper, it’s a character largely devoid of dramatic interest or tension. However, Redman brings a great deal of intelligence, determination and cunning to the role: Marina has a huge strength of character and is never the victim in the play. She understands the situation she is in, and Redman plays her as a woman with a shrewd and fast judge of character, swiftly able to identify strengths and weaknesses of the person she is talking to and to adjust her approach to manipulate them effectively. Far from a sweet flowery innocence, you get a sense of a woman who understands the world extremely well and how to get what she wants out of it. Redman turns a reactive near-victim into the most effective and proactive character in the play.

It’s a performance that really motors the play – and it fills a void that Mike Gwilym isn’t quite able to do in the first half. Pericles is part wanderer, part romantic maverick – Gwilyn doesn’t quite have the charisma and dynamism as a performer that the part demands. As an actor he is very well spoken and fiercely intelligent; he makes Pericles instantly believable as the strong king and decisive ruler, but he doesn’t quite convince as the swaggering adventurer who can win Thaisa’s heart, or the chance taker who inadvertently unmasks covert incest in the Antioch plotline. Gwilym just isn’t quite magnetic enough as a leading man to carry the first half of the drama – you keep wanting a little more life and energy from him. His line readings are beautiful, but he’s not the romantic lead the part needs to be. 

A young Juliet Stevenson is impressive as the na├»ve and tender Thaisa, her intelligence as an actor (similar to Redman) adding a confidence and sexiness to a character who, on paper, is potentially quite bland. Stevenson has a real breathless quality in her performance. Jones and his designers work hard to give her and Pericles a complementary appearance late on. She is saddled with the dull staging of her recovery-from-illness scene, but brings  her now-established excellence as a performer. A large part of the impact of the final resolution comes from her quiet emotion.

The rest of the cast is a wonderful who’s-who of players from earlier in the series – it’s actually very nice to see them all again! Most of them are in cameo roles but produce excellent work. Norman Rodway brings a sharpness and animation to Cleon – later collapsing into a sense of being trapped and powerless after his wife’s actions. Annette Crosbie as his wife Dionyza manages to make the character’s bizarre sudden transformation from caring mother to murderous evil aunt fairly logical – she creates a decent spark of bitterness and a clear sign of insecurity early in Dionyza. Patrick Godfrey makes Helicanus a stand-up guy. Patrick Allen is a playfully gruff Simonedes. Trevor Peacock is surprisingly quite funny (considering the series’ track record with comedy) as whorehouse employee Boult. Clive Swift is saddled with the worst part as Cerimon, but does a decent job. Special mention must also be made of Patrick Ryecart, here cast much more effectively as the rakish Lysimachus than he ever was as Romeo.

For the new cast, there are fewer standouts. John Woodvine makes a good impression as the regal, cruel and controlling Antiochus – these scenes have some decent tension in them, drily handled as the Antioch section of the production is. Nick Brimble gives a decent turn as reluctant assassin Leonine. For the rest of the production, a number of the supporting roles use a small company of 5-6 actors. This makes for an interesting rotation of actors but I’m not quite sure if there is any particular reason for it within the world of the production, in the way that (say) the Henry VI productions used doubling. Here I suspect it was to cut a few costs, but when you have a decent-enough company it’s nice to see them rotating through various lords, fishermen, knights and gentlemen.

David Jones draws out some good performances in some decent settings, to create a version of the play that (eventually) has a real sense of story and a genuine emotional force to it. The problem is that he is hamstrung for too long with the flaws of the actual play. He often fails to make strengths out of the play’s itinerant structure, at some points making it worse by allowing the pace to drop and introducing overlong sequences, such as dances or medical cures. But when the production reaches a single consistent story – and introduces and explores its principal characters – it starts to come to life. It takes too long to get there, but it handles some of the play’s problems well and although it fails to bring the first half to life it still manages to create some emotional force and engagement by its end. 

This is a decent production of a very difficult play, with some very strong moments and some good performances, in particular from Amanda Redman who steals the show as Marina. However, there are some weaknesses, often in the pacing which too frequently slows down to accommodate time-consuming “set piece” moments that add very little indeed to the plot. Mike Gwilym also lacks a certain charisma that the title role needs in order to really bring the character (and the play) to life. But despite some flaws, the second half effectively stages the story of the play and eventually lead to a reconciliation scene that is quite moving. Some moments of wit and humour lighten the tone as well. While this is not a perfect production, it’s not a perfect play – and this is a pretty good stab at bringing it to life, far superior to Jones’ previous offering in the series, The Merry Wives of Windsor.

NEXT TIME: Robert Lindsay and Cheri Lunghi bicker and fall in love in Much Ado About Nothing.

Tuesday 20 December 2016

King John (Series 7 Episode 1)

First transmitted 24th November 1984

Leonard Rossiter schemes in vain in King John

Cast: Leonard Rossiter (King John), George Costigan (Philip the Bastard), John Thaw (Hubert), Claire Bloom (Constance), Charles Kay (King Philip), Mary Morris (Queen Elinor), Richard Wordsworth (Cardinal Pandolph), Robert Brown (Pembroke), John Castle (Salisbury), Jonathan Coy (The Dauphin), Gordon Kaye (Duke of Austria), Janet Maw (Blanche), Phyllida Law (Lady Faulconbridge), Edward Hibbert (Robert Faulconbridge)
Director: David Giles

The final series of the BBC’s Shakespeare project kicked off with the producers surely well aware that, due to lack of foresight at the start, they were left with one whopper in Much Ado About Nothing and then four relative minnows in the Shakespeare pool – Pericles, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Titus Andronicus and King John. This is a shame since from this point on many of the issues with these productions are going to be about how well the director’s deal with flaws and problems in the plays themselves, rather than how they bring the plays to the screen – issues that I am not always confident that the directors who previously handled The Tempest and The Merry Wives of Windsor earlier in this series are going to be able to cope with.

King John is an odd play, with Shakespeare unsure what type of story he wants to tell here, or how he wants to tell it. The tone of the play zig zags oddly from almost light comedy into dark tragedy. John is a curiously peripheral character for large chunks of the play, struggling to impose himself on the action, as much as the actor must struggle to impose himself on the play. Time is telescoped as always, but in a scattergun and confused way, so that some events seem to happen in a few hours, others months apart. Characters take on great importance and then suddenly drop out of the action altogether. John is bad when the actions he undertakes are without defence – but Shakespeare seems obliged to present him as almost a hero when he defies the Catholic church and, that old Shakespeare bug bear, the French. It’s a difficult period of history to dramatise, so this is perhaps why Shakespeare feels more comfortable writing characters he effectively invented, principally of course Philip the Bastard, who gets all the best speeches and most of the best lines (if anything, John is a figurehead in his own play).

So that brings us to this production, which is a rather lifeless version of this rambling play that gets excessively bogged down in the earlier acts, in particular the long, long scenes that make up the bulks of Acts 1, 2 and 3. The production fails to really kick into gear into well into Act 4, instead developing into a series of scenes of speechifying, often under powered in delivery. Camera angles are kept simple, as well as editing styles, with direction favouring a straight combination of two-shot technique, with plenty of cuts back to the person who happens to be speaking at that time. There is a lack of inventiveness in any television technique or filmic language, with the decision instead to treat this as a very theatrical adaptation, possibly one of the most theatrical of the series. Occasional good ideas and interesting camera movements are few and far between.

The staging and design follows this up, with the style chosen for the different locations in the play (particularly outside locations) deliberately going for as non-realist a design as possible. The French locations are stylised exteriors, with the action taking place in front of huge backcloths covered in fleur-de-lis, absolutely no attempt made to suggest that we are ever outside in a ‘real’ place. The castles follow this design, with the stonework looking like exactly what it is – papier mache – and the exteriors of castle locations almost laughably wobbly in their woodenness. By contrast, interiors are detailed and carefully constructed to resemble real castles. Nothing wrong with this of course, but in a production that plays the action and the characters in as determinedly realist a way as possible, this looks odd – better productions have got away with non-realist locations, because either the action married with this, or the locations had been made so non-realist that there was never a feeling that we were meant to be looking at a real place. The inconsistency between interiors and exteriors doesn’t help with this.

Other creative and casting decisions in the play also don’t really work. Was it really necessary to have every single one of Cardinal Pandolph’s entrances (an underwhelming performance in any case by Richard Wandsworth, which doesn’t convey the Cardinal’s ruthlessness) accompanied by monastic chanting? This chanting keeps making clumsy appearances throughout the production, whenever the theme of religion rears its head. This production is also cursed with some of the weakest child actors we’ve seen yet in the series. The child playing Arthur is woefully unconvincing and fatally undermines what is usually the play’s best scene (Hubert’s planned blinding of Arthur) by failing to convey any sense of fear or anxiety (he’s not particularly helped by an underpowered John Thaw as Hubert). As a result, this scene, usually the emotional centrepiece of the play, is actually rather dull here. A second child performer pops up towards the end as Henry III and is equally ineffective.

In terms of the themes of the play, one thing Giles really focuses on, and brings out successfully, is the importance and strength of mothers and the influence and control they have over their children. There are three mothers in this play – Lady Faulconbridge, Eleanor and Constance – and all three of them are clearly the driving forces behind their children, guiding their decisions and fulfilling their own ambitions and desires through those children. Giles shoots the mothers always in domineering positions, presenting them as constantly controlling and manipulating their sons, living and achieving their ambitions through them.  Constance speaks constantly for her son, and seems barely able to release her grip on him, constantly holding him in a domineering grasp. Lady Faulconbridge clearly controls her rather dullard son Robert and can see (and intends to enjoy) the clear advantages of the success of her bastard son Philip. Even Janet Maw’s Blanche clearly understands realpolitik.

This focus on mothers and sons is helped by impressive performances from these actresses. Mary Morris is a fearsome, ruthless, ambitious and intelligent Queen Eleanor, clearly positioned as the power behind her son’s throne. Throughout A1, Eleanor is a constant presence beside John, almost a co-ruler. Giles uses some intelligent cutting and reaction shots to keep Eleanor to the forefront of the action throughout A2, allowing the audience to constantly see how she is evaluating the consequences of the actions around her. Phyllida Law equally makes a lot of Lady Faulconbridge’s wisdom and clearly expresses the affection she holds Philip in. Claire Bloom gives another impressive performance in this series, her Constance developing from a forceful determination to achieve her son’s rights, through to a pained, desperation progressing into despair as his hopes and dreams fall apart. Many of the finest moments in A2 are dominated by her presence, and Constance’s overbearing determination.

It’s in the second half that the loss of these characters is felt, as the play moves towards a confusing see-saw of events as men fall back into doing what they do best – fighting and feuding. Robert Brown and John Castle do their best with rather nondescript roles as the primary English lords, but are not helped by some repetitive decisions both in writing and playing – we don’t need to see Castle’s Salisbury in tears in almost every scene to know that he is as conflicted at betraying his country as he was devastated at the death of Arthur. A4 and A5 may pump up the number of events, but the production presents them (admittedly not the finest dramatic sequences written by Shakespeare) as formless and shapeless. Watching this I had no idea what this production might be building towards – there is no real sense of drive, of a narrative or thematic point being made here. Instead events continue forward until they stop. This is even clearer in the end of the play, as the actors shuffle off (accompanied of course by monastic chanting) without any real sense that the production has concluded something or been about anything.

A part of this problem is George Costigan’s performance as Philip the Bastard. An almost entirely invented character, Philip is probably (if anyone is) the real lead of the play, the only character who addresses the audience, and the character from whose perspective we are invited to see much of the action. Costigan gives an intelligent and extremely well spoken performance, but for me it’s too underpowered and calm. I don’t really get from him a sense of the charisma the part needs – there has to be a reason why kings and peers of the realm start to listen to this upstart Bastard, and I’m not sure that is explained. Similarly, the progress that Philip makes towards decency and patriotism (is there a nicer Bastard in Shakespeare?) doesn’t really become clear either. Philip is the main lens through which the audience sees the play, and when his journey seems hazy, so does the play.

Which brings us to the title character. Just like with John Cleese in Shrew, the BBC went against the expected choice by hiring an actor best known for sitcoms to play the tragic lead. The impact is slightly lost today, largely because Rossiter is less well known today than Cleese – no episodes of Rising Damp on Netflix! – but he gives a very good performance here as a John, a weasly mummy’s boy unable to make a decision, prone to the snide remark and glance but crucially lacking any ability to inspire confidence in others. So he takes a slightly pathetic delight in little victories – like clasping the King of France’s hand in a crucial diplomatic moment – but then looks total at a loss at a major moment, as his lords rebel. His lords show little respect for him – at one point Salisbury grasps him by the shoulder and John hardly reacts – and he constantly shuffles on his feet when talking and whines like a child, refusing at one point to acknowledge Philip until he has kissed his hand first. It’s a decent performance that seems very true to the historical man (and also quite good casting for Rossiter). It’s a real shame that this was Rossiter’s last ever performance, as he passed away between filming and transmission.

Rossiter gives us a firm centre for this production, but even he gets a bit lost in the dully handled speechifying that makes up most of the flat first half. A2 in particular seems to go on and on as more and more hot air covers the destiny of the crown, and the dark comedy of this offer and counter offer scene gets lost in the crush. It’s just not plain interesting enough for anyone to care – and there doesn’t seem to be enough tension or indeed anything really at stake during this long sequence. This then means that once things start to happen in A4, the audience doesn’t have a sense of tension exploding, or pay off from a build earlier. Instead, it remains a faithful but rather flat rendition of a weak play that takes the audience nowhere in particular.

A decent lead performance, and some impressive supporting performances, can’t make up for what remains a rather disappointing and empty production of one of Shakespeare’s weaker plays, that largely lacks real narrative thrust and never really feels like it is going anywhere. Instead, events continue until there are no more events, and material that could have real emotional impact instead meanders past, lost in dull debate and a few too many underpowered performances in crucial roles. Stylistically and filmically, it also doesn’t really work – too bright, too colourful, not visually inventive enough or done with enough dynamism. Disappointing.

NEXT TIME: Mike Gwilym sails the seven seas as Pericles.

Tuesday 18 October 2016

Coriolanus (Series 6 Episode 5)

First Transmitted 21st April 1984

Alan Howard makes a point. The people of Rome ain't pleased with it.

Cast: Alan Howard (Coriolanus), Joss Ackland (Menenius), Irene Worth (Volumnia), Joanna McCallum (Virgilia), Mike Gwilym (Aufidius), John Burgess (Sicinius), Anthony Pedley (Junius Brutus), Patrick Godfrey (Cominius), Heather Canning (Valeria), John Rowe (Senator), Valentine Dyall (Adrian), Peter Sands (Titus Lartius), Nicholas Amer (Aedile), Paul Jesson (First Citizen), Ray Roberts (Second Citizen), Leon Lissek (Third Citizen), Jon Rumney (Fourth Citizen), Russell Kilmister (Fifth Citizen)
Director: Elijah Moshinsky

For a long time, I would have said the existence of this production helped justify the very existence of the BBC Shakespeare series. Not so much due to the quality of the production itself (although that is largely high) but because I felt it was so unlikely anyone would ever consider making a film of a play that deals with such heavyweight political themes and has a central character who, for large chunks of the action, is essentially a bit of a dick and an advocate of, at best, paternalistic, elitist government. But now – after first Ralph Fiennes’ excellent Bosnian-set film and Tom Hiddleston’s sell-out run in the West End and on National Theatre Live, I wonder if we are perhaps on the crest of a wave with this play. Its ideas of the mob being easily swayed by demagogues and encouraged to blame selected figures (Volsces! Senators! Caius Martius himself!) may be about to come into its own.

Well be that as it may, this production by itself not only makes a strong case for the series, it’s also in a way quite a milestone. Firstly, perhaps because there was more freedom with such a little known work (not many schools in the American mid-West trawling through Coriolanus), Moshinsky actually makes some pretty major cuts to the play here – I would say at least 40 minutes minimum of stage time has been hacked out. In addition, scenes have been re-arranged, split up, combined, lines reassigned to different characters – try following along with a script, it’s tricky. None of these feel like cuts “for the sake of it” – they tighten and streamline the action. For example, in one clever cut in A5 the dialogue is rearranged so we see the Menenius’ reaction to his failed mission to Coriolanus before we see Volmunia’s successful one, not after as in the script. This makes the build-up to Volumnia’s mission more daunting and emphasises Coriolanus’ coldness – making the character reversal in A5 S3 more effective. The script is full of clever little rearrangements like this.

This helps Moshinsky to create a production that actually feels like it has something to say about the play. The cuts, rearrangements and tightening bring the focus very closely into a claustrophobic character study in a hot, troubled Rome. The focus is also very firmly placed on Coriolanus himself, a character study of this confused and confusing man, a cocktail of split impulses, unable to find his place in society outside of his martial role. The heat of the city – bees are heard buzzing on the soundtrack, and sweat tickles brows in close-up – is matched by the homoerotic tension Moshinsky stresses (perhaps a bit too thickly) between Coriolanus and Aufidius – these two men of action, seemingly unable to understand or relate to much else in their world, finding a sensuous fascination in each other’s temperaments and bodies. But more of that later.

The set design and lighting Moshinsky has chosen for the production also serve this mood, Rome being a sparsley furnished, sandy coloured, overbearing metropolis of narrow streets and featureless walls, as if the whole place was some sort of elaborate prison or rat cage. He lights it throughout with strong strips of Caravaggio lighting, throwing a few areas into light and others into a semi-darkness. Through this, the small strips of colour on the otherwise predominately black and white costumes (carried over from the Miller house style for the series) stand out strikingly. Several scenes bring to mind Caravaggio – I was reminded in particular of The Calling of St. Matthew (where the design for Rome – right down to a window that views out into nothing – seems to be identical) but also The Taking of Christ for the way the light is used to catch the armour and with the vibrancy of the crowd scenes.

The Rome that Moshinsky sets his play in is a world of windowless rooms – the only ones are seen in the streets overlooking the square where Coriolanus fails to hide his contempt for the people, while making cursory efforts to appeal for their votes. A nice touch as well – that I didn’t notice at first – is that a virtue is made of the studio location by omitting any shots of a sky or skyscape – buildings just seem to stretch up, horizons are dim without being seen, rooms have higher ceilings. No where seems warm or friendly, everywhere is efficient, distant and cold – even Coriolanus’ home has an austerity to it. This then allows the crowd themselves in many places to create the city – and in several cases this works really effectively, as the crowds move as one disorganised mass, pressing in the directions they have been pushed towards, or starring impassively and unmovingly at the camera while the arguments of those they disagree with are presented.

Alongside this, Moshinsky throws in plenty of stylistic flourishes. The battle scenes in particular in A2 are deliberately reduced to a stylised series of clashes, largely with no soundtrack other than some suitably martial music, as soldiers move forward under Coriolanus’ direction. The soldiers armour is presented to give them an impersonal machine like quality, moving grimly forward to victory. Coriolanus’ thoughts intrude at times over the action, with some speeches and soliloquies moved to voiceover while the camera holds on his face. Music is also used effectively in the production, a percussive, low beat helping to bring everything into a tight, claustrophobic focus on Coriolanus himself, who is often placed in close-up.

At the centre of this character study of a production is Alan Howard’s domineering Coriolanus. Howard was one of the leading classical actors of the time, though his lack of interest in film and television has meant he remains less well known than many of his contemporaries. However, he was in many ways a perfect choice for Coriolanus – a part he had already played to great success on stage. It plays well to Howard’s coolness as a performer and makes great use of his arch, patrician, almost cruel voice with its studied, slightly sinister pronunciation. His face seems to constantly wear a scornful sneer – introduced from the off in A1 S1 as he confronts the citizens of Rome – although what is great is that Howard suggests Coriolanus simply can’t understand or relate to people – in A2 S1 he seems a little lost and awkward as he heads through a crowd of cheering citizens. This is accentuated in A2 S3 where the great soldier skulks awkwardly around fountain, nervously approaching the citizens to ask if he can count on their vote – barely able to restrain his self-loathing at asking for favours, unable to picture himself as one of the many representatives of the human race.

It’s this little tinge of weakness, nerves and immaturity that Howard trickles in that makes the final scenes work well – his Coriolanus is essentially a slightly spoiled kid, whose emotional maturity has been stunted at a very early age – he may have a wife and child but it’s almost impossible to imagine that he could have done something as normal as having sex. His natural defence seems to be to lash out – the comfort we see in his manner and form when raging at the tribunes in A3 S1, contrasted with his shame when forced to make an apology he does not feel in A3 S2. A man who it seems who has had his mother drum into him from an early age that he is special – is it any wonder that he sees the ‘normal’ interaction of Roman politics as beneath him, that indeed he sees the rest of the city’s population as less deserving or worthy than himself? Is it any wonder that he explodes in rage when banished, that he takes a glee in burning his bridges?

What’s interesting about the performance is the way Coriolanus constantly seems to be wrestling with these dual natures in her personality – the warrior (and Howard always seems to be fiddling with a sword until the final Act) and the family man. Moshinsky camera literally places Howard centre stage in close up for many of the major speeches – most impressively after this furious denunciation of the Roman citizens, when the camera pans back from close up to reveal Howard standing in isolation, stunned Romans looking on. After the banishment, Howard’s hollow eyes constantly suggest a man acting against his own principles – his refusal to look at Menenius during A5 indicating he is aware of this weakness – which his teary eyed, voice cracked “Mother, what have you done” when succumbing to Volumnia’s pleas later in A5 finally brings to the surface.

Howard’s performance is not perfect – he’s a little too stagy as an actor, the camera’s close-ups liable to make his facial acting turn a little too far towards gurning, his intensity as a performer sometimes too much on the small screen. The realities of television viewing also work against him – a scene when he leans against a wall admiring his blood covered blade is the sort of visual that would look terrific from the Grand Circle, but looks campy and ridiculous in semi close-up. His voice sounds just a fraction too sinister and scornful at times. He never really looks like the great warrior he must be (times have changed – the muscle we expect actors to put on for this sort of role now would amaze TV execs of this series).

It’s the elite quality about Coriolanus – his inability to really see anyone as an equal – that Moshinsky is most interested in exploring. Mike Gwilym’s surly Aufidius is presented as sort of mirror-image – a man with more ability for ‘playing the game’ but who also sees himself as ‘more than’ his fellow Volscians, who sees the fate of the city to a certain extent tied up with his own destiny. The method that Moshinsky uses to explore this contrast between the two is bring a concentrated sexual subtext between the two straight to the surface. These two macho warriors are engrossed in each other, hardly able to take their eyes off each other – even their fights are near-naked wrestling matches. When meeting after Coriolanus’ banishment, Aufidius wraps his arms around him tenderly while Coriolanus retells the story of his banishment, both of them in a slight state of undress. This is only a more tender version of their fight earlier in A2 - here a near nude, sweaty scrap, which quickly becomes a physical wrestling match, both actors panting and grappling each other in an intimate clash of bodies.

Even their final confrontation is recast as a near sexual climax. Reworking the scene from the play, here Aufidius personally murders Coriolanus, with Coriolanus himself egging him on, staring into his eyes while chanting a mantra of “kill, kill, kill” slowly taken up by Aufidius as he brings Coriolanus close to him, stabbing him silently with a sword, while Coriolanus holds his gaze, silently accepting this fatal penetration. To be entirely honest, the issue is brought a little too heavily to the fore (although there is tonnes of textual justification for such a theory) but it does make for some drama – and reinforces the very martial world (and cast of mind) of the lead character, who sees the world as one that should be governed solely by similarly strong men. No wonder that the only man who may be an equal to him is the only other character in the play to spark his interest.

By comparison the women of the play get rather shorter shrift in this version. Virgilia is as demure and timid as you might expect – and Coriolanus treats her more like a sister than a wife. Irene Worth’s full throttle Volumnia is a little too much for my taste and I found her relationship with Coriolanus is not really given the time in the production to really invest the audience in it. Similarly to Aufidius, as a character she is used to demonstrate elements of Coriolanus’ character rather than as a character herself per se (namely to show us the juvenile, little boy lost quality of Coriolanus bubbling just under the surface – his eternal “mummy’s boy” nature, always kow-towing to the only woman who ever controlled him). Worth’s performance brings that force and passion but I found the decisions taken to play her were, bizarrely, so close to Howard’s performance that it was almost too much. As a result I found the scene where she turns Coriolanus away from Rome in A5 – usually the highpoint of the production – actually rather monotonous. Probably not helped by the fact that Moshinsky’s interest is clearly with the Coriolanus/Aufidius relationship rather than the (more central in the text) Coriolanus/Volumnia relationship (Aufidius is even present during this scene and cut-to on several occasions). This key relationship is presented as a result far more perfunctionally and traditionally.

For the other performances, Joss Ackland is a terrific Menenius, playing as a bluff old politician comfortable enough to talk the talk with commoners, while always remaining a member of the ruling class, like some sort of Roman Ken Clarke. His affection for Coriolanus (his wet eyed reaction to the banishment feels very sweet) never blinds him to the realities of politics – and also gives a cocky self assurance that he can guide and mentor his wayward pupil. Old stagers Anthony Pedley and Paul Jesson do their usual excellent work. Patrick Godfrey makes a lot of the expanded role of Cominius, a patrician mediocrity. The actors assigned to the roles of the citizens and senators really bring to life their community and social class.

So this is a very well done, with at times rather over-interpreted production that uses some real design strengths of the series to present a visually striking version of Rome. Despite its flaws, I have a real fondness for this production, which has a level of interpretation to it that is unusual for the series – and actually very refreshing. It’s great to see the series have the courage to allow its more talented directors to make these productions their own interpretations rather than by-the-numbers walk-throughs. More like this please from the rest of the series!

An impressive piece of film making, with plenty of flourishes, lots of interpretation from Moshinsky, whose visual sense is as strong as ever and a strong performance from Alan Howard anchoring the production. However, it’s sometimes a little too heavy handed, both in performance and in the interpretation placed on the production, with Moshinsky’s textual interpretation of the Coriolanus/Aufidius relationship shoved a little too much towards the fore. Despite that though, this is certainly one of the strongest (and most interesting) films in the series.

NEXT TIME: Into the final series of the BBC Shakespeare as Leonard Rossiter presents the weasley King John.