Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 4th October, 2017
Angus Jackson’s new production opens with a riot – carried out by a colour-coordinated mob; they must have all read the memo – firmly establishing the contemporary setting (if the pre-show forklift truck stashing bags of corn out of public reach isn’t enough of a pointer!). Divisions in society are clearly marked through clothing. The plebs are all hoodies and tracky bottoms, the ruling elite all dinner jackets and dickie bows. It is a polarised society of the chavs and the chav-nots. Somewhere between the two are the Tribunes (Jackie Morrison and Martina Laird) who seem uncomfortable in their position and in their clothing – power-dressed to impress – Martina Laird especially, tottering in her high heels as the Tribunes seek to establish their power.
The cast is also divided into those who can handle the wordy verse and those in whose gobs it falls flat and lifeless. Veteran actor Paul Jesson shows us how it’s done as the elder patrician Menenius – the rhythms of the verse come across as natural and, above all, the meaning is always intelligible. As Volumnia, the protagonist’s mum, Haydn Gwynne (at first dressed more for a Noel Coward) brings elegance and intensity – and also humour. The same can be said for the ever-excellent James Corrigan’s Aufidius, who has a kind of Joker/Batman thing going on with Coriolanus. They hate each other with such passion they can’t leave each other alone.
In the title role and making his RSC debut is Sope Dirisu. He certainly looks the part and is especially striking when drenched in the blood of the vanquished. Vocally, he doesn’t quite get it across – until, that is, Coriolanus is banished from Rome (because of Reasons, albeit petty ones) and here Dirisu rises to the demands of the scene, demonstrating why he got the part in the first place. Also enjoyable is his reduction to petulant teen when his mum orders him about.
Charles Aitken comes a close second to Corrigan in my view as the consul Cominius, proving he can deliver the verse in a range of contexts, whether in a declamatory style in public oration, or in more personal, off-duty moments. The excellent Hannah Morrish is criminally underused as Coriolanus’s Mrs, forever pushed aside by his devotion to his mother.
It is also a production of two halves. The first is hard going but after the interval, everything seems to click into place and the play flies along to its violent conclusion. There’s plenty of blood in evidence but only one on-stage death – guess whose! – graphically and symbolically involving a chain. The hand-to-hand skirmishes (kudos to fight director Terry King) are far more effective than the running around, slapping swords together. There are no guns, it appears, and precious little technology (apart from the forklift!)
Of course, we look for parallels in our society: the risk of giving the public what they want, regardless of the consequences; the ruling class so arrogant and assured of their position and so out of touch with the populace; mistrust of those who claim to be carrying out the will of the people; and the people denying they ever wanted what they voted for… There is a neat line that could be about self-appointed political commentators on Twitter: “They’ll sit by the fire and presume to know what goes on in the Capitol”. LOL.
On the whole, I think the second half saves the show and because of it, we forgive the hard slog of the first. Coriolanus as a character is hard to empathise with, mainly because he rarely tells us what’s going on in his head. This is a production that tries hard to get us to understand him but I think the modern dress set against the rather alien power systems are a mismatch that keeps us from fully appreciating this brand of political manoeuvring. Paradoxically, ancient Romans dressed as ancient Romans and doing what ancient Romans do may have been more accessible!