Civil class war: Coriolanus, RSC

Coriolanus doesn’t often hit the modern stage: its plot, a hymn to the necessary evil of educated patrician privilege in order to provide for the politically fickle, unthinking plebeian multitude, doesn’t sit at all well with modern political correctness. Even in an age of Remoaning, as the failed political class continue to wring their well-manicured hands across the media at a wider populace daring to voice their disenchanted perspective on the world, the entrenched snobbery of Coriolanus can scarcely be rehabilitated for us – especially in this politically incoherent production from Angus Jackson for the RSC, which tries very hard (in line with modern tastes) to back the plebeians, and ends up fighting the play itself as a result. Jackson turns the plebeian tribunes Sicinius Veletus and Junius Brutus into left-wing female politicians, who thus arrive on the modern stage endowed with the composure of genuine moral authority; their conniving treachery, implied hypocrisy and final, catastrophic pursuit of self-interest are barely criticised by Jackson, who meanwhile does his best to discredit the elite, yet fails. Shakespeare has already exposed the problems at the top of this society, but simultaneously provides the strongest possible argument for their maintenance by revealing the steadily grosser inadequacies all the way down the food chain; his original narrative arc shines through in spite of Jackson’s direction, rather than thanks to it.

The production looks wonderfully slick: a clean black stage, with buildings from grain stores to palaces cleverly contrived by sliding metal walls, with curtains to soften lines for interior scenes, and the public marketplace indicated by rolled-on mountains of steel seating and podiums which rise immaculately from the floor. The judicious inclusion of a couple of classical statues remind us of Rome, although we could be in any global city where the rich have become socially isolated and disconnected from the poor, whose approval they nevertheless require to wield power. Lighting by Richard Howell is smart, dramatic and exciting, but fight scenes fail to gel, as men in contemporary combat dress swipe at each other inappropriately with swords: a hand-to-hand tussle between Coriolanus and his enemy Aufidius feels more convincingly violent. The elite often appear in black tie, while the plebeians wear hoodies and baseball caps: both feel like tired, over-obvious stereotypes, particularly when improbably brought together on one stage. Meanwhile, very subtle distinctions in uniform between Romans and Volscians don’t make for clear storytelling in battle scenes, nor does the monochrome, placeless setting give us any convincing narrative context for their continuous aggression. However, Coriolanus’ ego-driven mistakes still rise to a satisfying psychological boiling point in the second half, diction and delivery are superb throughout, and the whole thing is worth watching for Haydn Gwynne’s magnificent Volumnia, a Roman matriarch of blood-curdling power and magnetic presence, elegantly supported by Hannah Morrish as a delicate, vulnerable Virgilia. Paul Jesson’s urbane, avuncular and surprisingly brave Menenius is another treat. Sope Dirisu’s crisp, soldierly but ultimately too straightforward Coriolanus is overshadowed by James Corrigan’s altogether more emotionally sophisticated Aufidius, who finally proves himself a better warrior in words; the one battlefield where Coriolanus is tragically fated to always lose.

Rating: Three 

Click here to read this review on TheatreCat.

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