This isn’t one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed plays, and for several reasons. Coriolanus doesn’t have any soliloquies so the audience cannot hear what is going on in his head and why he changes his course and allegiance several times. Although he dies at the end the play is more of history play than a tragedy unless the actor can let the audience feel the sense of tragic waste at the end. Coriolanus is also dominated by his mother, Volumnia, and her ambitions for him.We need to understand why. His wife Virgilia has little to say or do and so it is hard to see anything of a relationship. Virgilia has few lines and some of them were cut. This robbed the scene in Act V of any significance because we had seen so little of the relationship between husband and wife earlier. The relationship between Coriolanus and Aufidius also has to be accounted for. All these are challenges of character and relationships which are not easy to solve. The director needs to work hard to fill in some of the gaps that Shakespeare left in the play.
Angus Jackson’s production establishes the play’s modernity at the beginning with a fork lift truck moving sacks of grain into a secure area so that it cannot be accessed by the people who rush on as an angry modern dress mob in hoodies as soon as it has been secured for the patricians. It is a shame that the truck plays no further part in the play, suggesting that it is just an expensive gimmick. Indeed the visual spectacles were all limited in their usefulness – the fork lift truck, the sacks of corn, the big bleachers, the Venus statue and the Rome statue merely to denote location.
Robert Innes Hopkins’s design is four square, symmetrical, uncomfortable and unyielding. Grey is the dominant colour. The whole thing is bleak and cold to look at. Given the rigidity of the set, I didn’t understand the untidy asymmetrical group pictures throughout.
I did think it was an interesting choice, however, to make Coriolanus so unappealing. Sope Dirisu’s utterances as Coriolanus are uniformly uninteresting, with repeated inflections and a very narrow vocal range. By the time the interval came, at the point of Coriolanus’s self-banishment from Rome, I agreed with the two tribunes that it would have been better if he had been thrown from the Tarpeian Rock there and then. Dirisu gave his character a little more range and variety in the second half but I could never warm to him.
Jackson had obviously decided that Aufidius was by far the more interesting character although it was, I thought, a shame that James Corrigan’s plentiful beard robbed him of some of the facial expressions that he has shown off to tremendous advantage in his previous roles. But this Aufidius was full of power and authority and the sword fights and wrestling match with Coriolanus were skilfully choreographed and exciting to watch. There was a moment, too, where Corrigan was allowed to show some depth and motivation, with his summary dismissal of his wife’s importance and the hints of his bisexual (?) attraction for Coriolanus. I was a bit disappointed that this did not seem to have been worked through the whole production.
Also exciting to watch was Haydn Gwynn’s wonderful Volumnia (although I didn’t understand the dowdy second half women’s costumes which looked as if they had come from a charity shop, unless it was an attempt to parallel their position at the end of the play with Coriolanus’s in his gown of humility). The scene between Coriolanus and Volumnia where she is advocating hypocritical pragmatism while he is affectless and almost autistic brought an unexpected warmth to her character, albeit at the expense of the hero.
The decision to make Sicinius Veletus (Jackie Morrison) and Junius Brutus (Martina Laird) female was interesting throughout, especially as it brought to mind Scottish and Welsh nationalism, opposing the conservatism of the patricians.
Other characters were worth watching. Charles Aitken was striking as Cominius and Paul Jesson had some convincing moments in the thankless and difficult role of Menenius.
I didn’t think that the modern dress worked very well. I could draw few contemporary parallels except of the most general kind. Coriolanus’s arrival to join up with Aufidius dressed as an American student in Europe backpacking for the summer was not an inspired choice. I didn’t think the music contributed anything worthwhile, either, particularly the singing and the blinding lights at the end.
This is a bleak production of a bleak play. In that it is suceessful. But it is the first of this season’s productions that I don’t want to see again.