Big plays and small plays, Shakespeare wrote them all. Even though it’s big in stature, Macbeth, for example, is small in size, at only 2,086 lines – little Comedy of Errors only has 1,754. At the other extreme, Hamlet has a whopping 3,798 lines – no wonder that uncut version with Albert Finney at the National back in 1976 took four full hours to endure. Coming in at fourth longest is Coriolanus (3,320 lines), and I reckon a good many of them are spent covering the hard battle for the city of Corioli, city seat of the Volscians. Allow me to give you a potted outline of what takes place: Caius Martius forces open the gates of the city and joins the leader of the Roman army, Cominius, to defeat Tullus Aufidius, commander of the Volscian army. In recognition of his valour, Caius Martius is renamed “Coriolanus”.
With an eye on future greatness, his bossy mother Volumnia wants him to stand as consul, but he’s most definitely not a man of the people. He is a man of martial valour, not petty suburban squabbling; and he finds it impossible to conceal how he despises the common man. The crowd turn against him for his attitude, and he ends up seeking refuge with his old foe Tullus Aufidius, who was previously defeated, but not dead. Together they plan to attack Rome, but at the last minute Volumnia makes Coriolanus repent his double-dealing, and a peace treaty is quickly hatched between Rome and the Volscians. As a thank you for his treachery, Tullus Aufidius kills Coriolanus. Oh, those Volscians.
I’d only seen Coriolanus performed once before – also courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company, back in 1978 with the tremendous Alan Howard in the title role. In that production, his name was pompously pronounced “Cor-eye-o-larnus”; thank heavens for the return to the present day sanity of “Cor-ee-o-laynus”. My main memory of the late Mr Howard is that he emerged from the battle covered head to toe in blood; it was Visceral Central. Fast forward almost forty years and Angus Jackson’s gritty new production has our new Coriolanus, Sope Dirisu, also covered head to toe in blood. Plus ça change… In fact, when Mr Dirisu appeared out of the darkness with his black leather armour soaked in gloopy red stuff, I swear the lady next to me almost fainted. It does provoke a strong response from the audience’s collective gut – and it’s not entirely comfortable. Plaudits to Terry King, the fight director, who must have been working overtime to get so many soldiers to clash so closely in hand to hand combat; never has the clinking of axes and the wielding of knives sounded so perilous.
This production is the final in a series of Shakespeare’s Roman plays that previously featured Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Titus Andronicus. I didn’t see those productions – although they are all returning to the stage at the Barbican later this year – so I can’t make any observations about how it fits in with the directorial vision of those other plays. What I particularly took from this production is how it highlights both the harshness of the reality of day-to-day life, and also how it exposes opposites within life; like the tough life of the working citizens and the easy life of the patricians.
The play opens with a fork lift truck driver removing some pallets from the centre stage to the back of the set. It’s a slow, deliberate, unemotional procedure; it has absolutely no bearing on the story or the first scene at all other than to show you the world from the point of view of the working man; in other words, the opposite of Coriolanus. Stark grey metallic grille shutters descend and ascend throughout the whole play, imposing their unsentimental clattering on whatever scene is taking place. They disturb the peace, they suggest a life of hard, manual work; the opposite of Coriolanus. The noble warrior in question, having previously gloried in the full gore of war, must present himself to the people, in an opposite light; as the wannabe consul who has to wear the cloak of humility (literally) in the marketplace to win the peoples’ support. He’s as uncomfortable as a pre-op patient in a theatre gown, carefully straddling the podium to retain as much dignity as possible (and not to let the citizens catch a glimpse up his legs.)
Then there are the two opposing women in his life; his mother Volumnia, the power behind the throne, is as tough as nails and manipulative as can be in her constant quest to mould him into the vanquishing warrior she desperately wants. His wife Virgilia, by contrast, barely dares make a sound as she hopes her husband will survive the battle with “no blood”; clearly the make-up department didn’t listen to her plea. There’s also a stark contrast between the bloody mess that Coriolanus made of Tullus Aufidius, and his later appearance as a society chappie hosting extravagant dinner parties at his pad in Antium. Angus Jackson makes the most of Aufidius’ words of affection for Coriolanus by amusingly tempting the Volscian chief right out of the closet. You’d imagine this Aufidius has shirtless pictures of Coriolanus littering up his browsing history. It’s definitely a production of contrasts.
Technically it’s a tremendous production – Richard Howell’s lighting is evocative, moody, and indeed sometimes quite terrifying. It reveals the harshness of life and the dark uncertainty of the battlefield; and the final tableau is a magnificent capture showing the dead hero being carried into an all-devouring but inexplicable light. As you would expect, the modern-day costumes do a grand job to reflect either the battle scenes, the comfort of the patricians, or the everyday clothing of the working citizens. The only downside to the play is that it’s just unfortunate that so much of the first act is either over-wordy or straightforward battlefield fodder, extremely well performed though it may be. The battle scenes occur too early for the audience to have a real sense of the characters involved, and they end up being somewhat confusing. Who’s fighting who over what? It isn’t always obvious. Added to this, you realise that Shakespeare reserves all his best scenes for the second half of the play; you may feel you have to wait a long time for the whole thing to really get going. It’s a potential problem for any production.
Sope Dirisu cuts an enormously grand figure as Coriolanus; a natural hero of the battlefield but a fake friend to the hoi polloi in the marketplace. Nowhere is his true character shown more vibrantly than when he rounds on the citizens as “you common cry of curs” – Mr Dirisu is just brilliant in this scene. He really makes you feel how wonderful it would be, if you’d had a bad day at the office, just to be able to turn on everyone and say, to hell with the lot of you. He has a fantastic stage presence and you have no doubt that he would win the day at any battle. Paul Jesson is superb as the over-comfortable, benignly complacent Menenius, apparently wandering from social engagement to social engagement with absolutely no clue that there’s unrest below the surface. In modern Britain he would be the archetypal so-called Metropolitan Elite Remain voter who was gobsmacked to discover the majority voted Leave.
Haydn Gwynne brings all of Volumnia’s strength and determination to the fore in a performance that leaves you in no doubt that she would dominate any family gathering. James Corrigan is particularly good as the socialite Aufidius, and his fury when he finally kills Coriolanus is truly shocking. There’s a wonderful performance by Charles Aitken (superb as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a few years ago) as Cominius, liable to get hilariously over-emotional at times. The extended ensemble of actors give a great impression of the citizenry at large, in all its unhappy forms. I really enjoyed the scene where they all refused to take the blame for Coriolanus’ exile and his resultant joining forces with the enemy – so typical of how no one takes any kind of responsibility! Finally, a special mention to Jackie Morrison and Martina Laird as the two tribunes; delightfully stirring up trouble and doing their best to manipulate the populace – politics hasn’t changed, has it?
This excellent production emphasises the relevance of the story today and shows you how no single man can be all things to all people. Encouraged too far out of their comfort zone, who knows what calamity might ensue. Don’t push too far, your dreams are china in your hand, as the poet once said. Recommended!
Production photos by Helen Maybanks