“What would you have, you curs that like nor peace nor war?”
Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave will be starring together in the Almeida’s Richard III later this year but it’s not their first time doing Shakespeare together – Redgrave played an excellent Volumnia to Fiennes’ Coriolanus in this 2011 film adaptation which was directed by Fiennes himself. Scripted by John Logan in a trimmed and taut two hours, it’s a fiercely contemporary retelling that draws heavily on modern conflicts such as the Balkans and the Arab Spring.
The brutal sense of savage civil war is apparent from the shocking outset, there’s a real sense of the nervy tension on the streets of this version of Rome as warrior Caius Martius defends it from the invading Volscian army, simultaneously barely holding off a riot from within as the public rise up against an out-of-touch ruling class. But persuaded to run for office and unable to conceal his contempt for the mob, he is exiled and Rome’s biggest hero becomes its most unpredictable enemy.
It’s an intelligent reading of the play and a superbly effective updating. TV broadcasts (read by Jon Snow) keep us updated in iambic pentameter, cameraphones record walkabouts in political campaigns and analogues are found for every single point about the greed of politicians and the ugliness of class war – the notion that military experience equals political nous, Paul Jesson and James Nesbitt’s political opportunists out for all they can get, the huge importance of public perception in maintaining the facade of modern politics.
Along with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, Fiennes has done an amazing job in giving us this stunningly gritty world in all its unremitting bleakness. He discharges the title role very well, full of maniacal rage and regret, and is matched by a superlative performance from Redgrave as a fierce warrior of her own, full of military pride but also tinged with vulnerability as public duty overrides any private maternal feeling, her stillness whilst speaking is just magnificent.
There’s good support too from Brian Cox’s Menenius, Jessica Chastain’s contained Virgilia, even Gerard Butler’s Aufidius (if my pleasures were ever guilty…) brings a manly, even homoerotic charge to the complex connection with his brother-in-arms. For a play that I’m not necessarily all that keen on, this is a successfully compelling cinematic reading that stands up well.