Tag Archives: Martina Laird

Mummy’s Little Soldier

CORIOLANUS

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.

Coriolanus

Right to bare arms! Sope Dirisu as Coriolanus (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

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!

Coriolanus

Is that a dagger in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me? James Corrigan as Aufidius (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

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Superior Soap

Errol John’s play from the 1950s deals with three households that share a yard in the less-than-wealthy side of Trinidad.  It begins with a song that sets the scene: a song about poverty and corruption everywhere, people are hungry when they should be angry – it’s an indirect commentary on the state of the UK under the present coalition government.  It is perhaps the only moment when the show has signs of contemporary relevance.  Having as much impact as an Ibsen play when it was first produced, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl suffers nowadays thanks to the prevalence of similar material widely available on the telly.  There is nothing that happens here that you can’t see in a soap opera any night of the week.

What counts then is the execution.  Director Michael Buffong allows his excellent cast time to let their characters breathe.  There is humour and conflict in the form of spats between neighbours but overall there is a leisurely pacing that allows us to savour the performances.  It reminds me of an August Wilson or an Arthur Miller – with a Caribbean flavour.

Martina Laird is powerful as matriarch Sophie Adams; hard-working and sardonic, she is ultimately a tragic figure as circumstances conspire to tear her little world apart.  Funny and formidable, Laird collapses into heart-rending distress as the lights go down.  It’s a superb performance.

She is supported by a likeable ensemble.  Tahirah Sharif is brimming with youthful vigour and youthful temperament as Sophie’s daughter Esther, whose scholarship to attend high school prompts her unemployed father (Jude Akuwudike) to take action that has devastating repercussions.  Neighbour Ephraim (an excellent Okezie Morro) seeks to improve his prospects by sailing off to a new life in England.  To do this he must abandon his up-the-duff girlfriend (Alisha Bailey) who is in turn fending off sexual harassment from her boss Old Mr Mack (Burt Caesar) who is also everyone’s landlord.  Old Mack is a bit of a slimeball and is held up for ridicule.  There is also comic relief from squawking whore Mavis (Bethan Mary James) and Prince, her suitor (Ray Emmet Brown)  Errol John allows Mavis a roundedness to her character.  Despite her loudness and carrying-on, she is that staple of drama and literature, a tart with a heart.

Soutra Gilmour’s detailed set and Steve Brown’s sound design give us a strong flavour of the location and the period.  We can imagine the world beyond the yard.  As with plays of this type, important events take place off-stage.  It’s an old-fashioned, well-made play made vibrant in a high quality, impassioned production.

The play suggests that wanting to better yourself comes at a terrible price, and you will invariably be worse off for trying – which is rather a dim view of the potential for social mobility – which is perhaps true of Britain today too…

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Martina Laird