Saturday, 23 September 2017

Theatre review: Coriolanus (RSC / RST & Barbican)

Season director Angus Jackson returns for the fourth and last of the RSC's Roman plays, and although Coriolanus is set earlier than the other three, designer Robert Innes Hopkins eschews the togas of the middle two plays, to match the modern dress of Titus Andronicus. In fact this also starts with a rioting gang in hoodies, and since it will actually play first when they all transfer to London, it annoyed me a bit that it'll look there like Blanche McIntyre copied the idea. Fortunately there was less to annoy me about the rest of the production, in which Sope Dirisu takes on the least likeable of Shakespeare's tragic heroes. Caius Martius, later given the title Coriolanus after one of his many military victories, is a one-man Roman army, raised as such by his batshit bloodthirsty mother Volumnia (Haydn Gwynne.)

His almost single-handed defeat of the Volscians is the deciding factor in having him put forward for political power as Consul.

But Rome is, in name at least, a democracy, and the noble-born Coriolanus has never disguised his contempt for the common people. He needs their votes to confirm him to his new position, and is unable to seduce them convincingly enough. From the city's hero he ends up labelled a traitor for his rejection of the idea that all citizens are equal. Having created a perfect killing machine, Rome banishes him, only to have him inevitably turn his sights on them in revenge.

This has never been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, but while Jackson's production is certainly a bit dry, there's plenty that's interesting here. The modern-day parallels are hard to miss: Openly disgusted that the city gave away corn to starving citizens during a famine, and utterly convinced of his own superiority, Dirisu's Coriolanus is the ultimate Tory. If anything his open contempt for the people is about as positive a point about him as there is - he's no politician, unable to convincingly lie to get power.

Those around him confirm that the facade of democracy covers rule by the elite: Haydn Gwynne's return to the RSC is good news and Volumnia is a role she was always likely to get stuck into, bringing out the ever-present note of hysteria behind the lioness. But having played both Margaret Thatcher and Camilla Parker-Bowles since she was last here, there's also that touch of steely contempt for anyone she deems beneath her family (i.e. basically everybody.)

In most productions a sympathetic voice of age and wisdom, here Menenius (Paul Jesson) is the well-fed face of the Establishment. By contrast, in this all-male environment, casting the shit-stirring Tribunes as women makes them more sympathetic. Jackie Morrison and Martina Laird have broken into the boys' club and need to be ruthless to get anywhere. (It's not like their criticisms of Coriolanus are false, even if the end result is out of proportion.)

The "star system" of the Greg'nTony Show regime at the RSC was sold as not only bringing established names to Stratford but also creating new ones, and Dirisu steps up solidly to the plate, although perhaps not entirely convincingly - a few more years' experience on stages of this size will probably see him command them easily but he's not quite there yet. With the number of plum supporting roles given to him over the Rome season it's apparent James Corrigan is also considered one to watch. Here he's Coriolanus' nemesis Tullus Aufidius, playing up the famously homoerotic element of their relationship with a tendency to wrestle his frenemy at any opportunity. It's not quite Coriolanal sex, but he doesn't underplay the unintentionally funny line about how many times they've fisted each other either. (Fisted in the throat. No, it doesn't make it that much better, does it?)*

On the other hand, the casting of former EnsembleTM members in relatively minor roles continues with Charles Aitken as Coriolanus' friend and predecessor as Consul, Cominius, although he does make something of the part, stopping him from blending into the background. Jackson's production is curiously low in energy for a Coriolanus, never quite building up the characters' defining blood-lust. But it does exchange this for an unusually clear telling of a story that I often find can get mired in political infighting.

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare is booking until the 14th of October at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon; then from the 6th to the 18th of November at the Barbican Theatre.

Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.

*Corrigan's right wrist was bandaged - he wasn't allowed on a bike was he? Nobody working at the RSC should get within ten feet of a bike, it's just tempting fate.

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