Travelling Hero

G.R. Wilson Knight

  • Coriolanus in Europe by David Daniell
    Athlone, 168 pp, £9.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 485 11192 6

This is a valuable account, written by a first-hand reporter, of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s tour with Coriolanus, directed by Terry Hands, to Paris, Vienna, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Berlin, Munich and Zurich. The company were known to Europe from previous visits, but it was a bold adventure, the bolder for the play chosen. It is far from easy in style, and only too likely to baffle a foreign audience, but if fully understood it is instead likely to channel fierce political passions. It had already had a recent showing, in adaptations by Brecht and Hollmann, the latter more in the nature of a parody, and the dangers, one way or another, were evident. I say ‘one way or another’ because Coriolanus might be seen as either Fascist or Communist propaganda, according to how one responds to the Shakespearian balance.

However, there appears to have been comparatively little difficulty on such scores. Many of the audiences came well prepared, and knew the text. Their knowledge of English was remarkable. Continental people are, on the whole, far more linguistically able and sensitive than the average Englishman, and English in particular enjoys an extraordinary perception. The response of these audiences throughout was truly amazing.

As for the politics, this seems to have caused little trouble. There was one occasion when the issues were raised, but for the most part it was recognised that the play stood outside them and audiences responded mainly to its single-minded concentration on the personality of the hero as revealed by Alan Howard’s performance. This dominated the production and whatever our personal opinions might have been, it was clearly a grand achievement. It had an immediate appeal, and that is a final, or almost final, dramatic test. I have not myself seen it, but the response, including a number of reports from dramatic critics, was clearly uncompromising. Two critics only, according to the author’s account, and he is clearly an honest, if sympathetic reporter, were opposed. Alan Howard was generally acclaimed for fine speaking and personal sensitivity. His manner was applauded, some regarding it as classical and some, according to the time-honoured distinction, romantic. The disparity only serves to illustrate the limitations of any vocabulary to do justice to dramatic effect. The impact, experienced immediately by the recipient, may be translated in recollection – and all dramatic criticism is ‘recollection’ – into various thought-moulds, and it is probable that the two views of his acting derived from similar immediate experiences.

I would lay great stress on immediacy: what Barrault defines as the ever-present nature of histrionic art, moving from one ‘now’ to another. Our critical responses should preserve truth to this immediacy, so far as acting is concerned, though other extensions, with respect to interpretation, may well have their rights in an overall commentary. Certainly the company’s performances exerted an immediate grip on these foreign audiences, and that says a great deal.

This sense of immediacy we have throughout the account. The author was with the production, watched it in process of performance, knew it from within, associating with the actors and technicians. Here is an example, describing actors in actual performance, in a state like that characterising soldiers nerved for an attack: ‘Actors one would chat to on the street, or smile at waiting for rehearsal, now had a quite new quality in all the backstage area; more than concentration, something intense, an electric field, a radioactivity, something wholly unapproachable.’ That is well said.

We experience last-minute changes and difficulties; though the foreign technicians appear to have been remarkably adaptable, there was sometimes a difficulty with the understanding of cues. We watch the loading of properties on to lorries. Sets consisted of boards and blocks, the elements being placed diversely for scenic changes. The colour was, I gather from the photographs, white or grey against darkness. There seems to have been little play on colour, as such, perhaps to tone with the lack of colour in the drama’s poetic atmosphere. There was a continual play on lights and darkness, and what difficulty there was seems to have arisen from trouble with switchboards and light-cues. These were, it is true, mostly overcome, but I hazard the criticism that there was overmuch complication here, and too great a reliance on blackouts.

As no exciting visual effects, as far as I can see, were aimed at – the lights, I presume, were mainly uncoloured – I should have thought a greater simplicity, relying on the figures and the acting, shown against a neutral background under a steady lighting, would have been at once easier to manage and in effect more suitable. Whether the costumes were quite so severe in colour as they seem, dominated by black leather, I cannot be sure. Perhaps these, too, were, again, devised to fit the play’s atmosphere.

To pass to a question of interpretation. The production’s point, made at the end, that the hero’s child is being brought up to follow his father’s intransigence stresses a possibility in direct counter to the play’s imaginative statement. We have watched a victory of Love over War – as simple as that. Coriolanus was, it seems, written about the time of Antony and Cleopatra, which celebrates a similar victory. This is an imaginative finality, and to discount it with any obtrusive suggestion is, blankly, wrong. At this point the book, and it seems the production, lays no emphasis on the wonderful eruption, for the first time, of happy music to ‘make the sun dance’, the cosmic glory supervening on the previous grim tone, which is, deliberately, now surpassed. Modern producers must, it seems, be allowed some latitude in over-daring falsification, but this is going rather far.

The performance followed the Folio in the use of ‘Corioles’ instead of the usual correction to ‘Corioli’. Shakespeare, it appears, if the text was his, follows North’s translation of a French translation of Plutarch. One would have thought that his ‘small Latin’ would have sufficed to warn him. Here, surely, is a case where for everyone’s, including Shakespeare’s, advantage, it is wiser to follow the usual practice of correction. ‘Corioles’ sounds wrong, and is wrong, and is surely better refused.

So much for the production. As regards the book itself, it is rather hampering to find the author referring to the actors personally when stage-characters’ names would have been natural. For example, there is a reference to ‘Howard’s commentary on himself’ when he says: ‘Like a dull actor now, I have forgot my part.’ It is not Howard who says this, but Coriolanus: nothing dull about Howard as an actor! The meaning is clear enough in the context, but the habit is confusing. Sometimes it is in order, as in ‘Howard held a long silence’: the man, not the fiction, being implied. The tenses, too, are confused.

As in a stage-direction, the present should normally be used for fictional description; when actual staging, or the actor as apart from the fiction, is described, the past tense may be in order. As, ‘Romeo takes Juliet by the hand,’ but ‘at this performance John held Mary’s hand too long.’ It all depends on the context, but distinctions are not precisely observed, as though the author was not used to stage commentary.

If he is not, the book is certainly a remarkable achievement. It even gains, as we are being introduced to stage matters from within by someone who appears to be strange to them, as most of his readers will be. We are made to live with and in the various performances. When Alan Howard is temporarily ill, we see Charles Dance, usually Aufidius, taking over with impressive facility for two nights. To follow the account is an exciting experience for the uninitiated into the mysteries of professional performance.

The book contains many illustrations of the actors, the action, and of sets and lights; there is a chart of a prompt-copy and another of a fight, both meticulous in detail. But there is an error of arrangement in the list of names and parts being placed at the end. Often when reading one is confused, especially when actors’ personal names are used so often instead of parts taken. There is a danger of the reader labouring through these difficulties until he is about to close the book, when he suddenly sees that all is made clear by the list. A grand, but scarcely artistic surprise. There is a fair amount of straight academic discourse, some of it from Alan Howard, who speaks vividly of Coriolanus’s style, and some on the Tribunes by the actors who performed them, and some from Terry Hands himself.