Theatre review: Coriolanus at the RSC

Coriolanus - RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon, 2017

Royal Shakespeare Company
Written by William Shakespeare
Director: Angus Jackson
Cast: Siope Dirisu, Hadyn Gwynne, Hannah Moorish, Paul Jesson, James Corrigan, Martina Laird, Jackie Morrison, Katherine Toy, Charles Aitken, Ben Hall

Opus Arte Blu-ray

Angus Jackson opened the RSC's 2017 Shakespeare Rome season with a Julius Caesar that appeared to be a fairly straightforward and faithful period production, but being Shakespeare it couldn't help but have resonance with whatever current political events were uppermost in everyone's mind. For a long time that's been Brexit - with even Cymbeline back in 2016 feeling like a warning of what a no-deal Brexit Britain might look like - and that's even more true for Jackson's production for the final part of the Rome season (after Titus Andronicus and Antony and Cleopatra). Consequently, it's perhaps that real-world context that makes this Coriolanus one of the more memorable productions of this play that really gets to the heart of the work.

Coriolanus is one of the least performed Shakespeare works, although recent years have seen some superb interpretations, including the testosterone-charged 2011 movie version starring Ralph Fiennes and a rather more subtle take on the play in the Donmar Warehouse's 2014 production starring Tom Hiddleston. Despite this, I personally find that Coriolanus is not a play that manages to 'stick' with you the way other great Shakespeare works do. It seems to lack that key scene or quotable line and the characterisation isn't particularly memorable, feeling like it resorts to types rather than real people. Setting it in the present day or near future, Angus Jackson's production however manages to make these types feel more real and people's predicaments more relevant to the times we are living in.

Wearing suits and ties rather than togas, you will more easily recognise the familiar traits of those in authority in this RSC production of Coriolanus, the well-off nobles contrasted with the common people who are starving (probably reliant on food-banks) and indignant about the shortage and price of grain. Despite the concern and warnings expressed by the experienced politician and diplomat Menenius, the authorities are unable to see that there's a problem and are more concerned with fighting wars. Meanwhile some tribunes, populist political advisors with no real world experience, are stirring the people up to protest against the establishment, coaching them to vote whichever way suits their own particular agenda and ambitions.

The tribunes (The media? Populist politicians?) are particularly set on turning the common people against Rome's heroic warrior Caius Martius who has shown his abilities on the battlefield and honoured with the name Coriolanus and nominated for the prestigious appointment of Consul. The problem is that the world Coriolanus inhabits is far removed from the everyday concerns of the ordinary people who are suffering and protesting on the streets, and his attitude towards them consequently seems arrogant, dismissive and contemptuous. He tries his best but can't help be disdainful of their ignorance and their lack of respect for someone who believes he is clearly their better and acting in their best interests.

Sound familiar? It seems incredible that Shakespeare witnessed the same class and social divisions in his own time as those we are struggling with today. Coriolanus is indeed revealed in this production as an insightful study of class, politics, war and democracy, and it's as cuttingly incisive and ever relevant as any of Shakespeare's history plays. It certainly rings ever truer when Coriolanus places personal authority over allowing a people's vote, complaining of a situation where "the rabble call our cares fears" and "Where gentry, title, wisdom cannot conclude but by the yea or no of general ignorance". It's such an attitude that leads to him being branded "a foe to the public weal", "a traitor to the people". In common parlance of today that would be 'Project Fear', 'The Will of the People', 'The People's Vote' and 'Enemies of the People'.

There still remains the danger of Coriolanus being about types rather than real people, but Angus Jackson's direction and the performances make all this meaningful and every bit as charged as the reality and the personalities we see on the news each night. The matters in Coriolanus are fought as life and death issues, and for many they are; not just the common people, but the whole 'nation' of Rome face dire no-deal consequences when they seem unable to persuade the Enemy Union (EU, get it?) of the Volsces and the disaffected Coriolanus to come to an agreement that will save them from a cliff-edge disaster. The scene where Hadyn Gwynne's Volumnia comes begging to her son for mercy really hits home in this production.

The RSC production also benefits from a fantastic performance from Siope Dirisu in a highly demanding and not entirely sympathetic lead role. He manages to convey an almost superstar quality as the invincible warrior, but is unafraid to show Coriolanus's icy disdain and arrogance for the functions of office and popular appeal that he feels are beneath him. In the end he also shows a true human side, even though it proves to be seen as a weakness in the eyes of Aufidius that determines his unfortunate but inevitable downfall. Paul Jesson's patrician Menenius is also full of colourful character, his expressions of the frustrations of the turns of events providing a wise insight that gives the outside viewer a way into this terrible situation. Jackson's production as a whole however does this brilliantly.

The 2017 RSC production of Coriolanus is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Opus Arte. The image quality looks a little indistinct at first under the dark theatrical lighting, but the presentation elsewhere is reasonably good and the sound is clear. Optional English subtitles are provided. Aside from a full-length commentary by Angus Jackson, the only other features are brief Cast Interviews and a Cast Gallery. Nathalie Hayes provides some historical perspective on Coriolanus in the enclosed booklet.

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