Coriolanus, the opening show in the RSC’s Rome Season at the Barbican (first staged in Stratford-upon-Avon during the summer), has never been one of Shakespeare’s more popular plays. despite being a fascinating political tragedy with a strong, simple storyline and boasting some powerful poetry, it lacks his usual depth and breadth of characterisation, while it is difficult to sympathise with the flawed hero who shows such contempt to those whom he regards as his social inferiors.
Caius Martius – later made Coriolanus – is a valiant soldier but a reluctant politician who remains true to his elitist principles. An uncompromising but arrogant war hero he is persuaded against his natural will by his mother Volumnia to stand for election as consul but cannot keep up the hypocritical pretence of courting the favour of the people. He is a man of action not of talk, out of his depth in the murky world of politics. When he is rejected and banished from Rome he sides with the enemy Volscians to seek vengeance.
The events take place in the early days of the Republic of Rome in the fifth century BCE (even if Coriolanus himself may not have existed), but season director Angus Jackson has set the play in modern dress. And it makes sense. The themes of class division, the gap between rich and poor, democratic deficit and populist demagoguery all strike home as highly pertinent now. The presentation of the lies of leaders and fickleness of the mob seems all too familiar in these dark times of political and economic uncertainty.
The polarised society is detectable from the start. We see a forklift truck picking up bags of grain and depositing them in a warehouse, with an iron security grille closing behind. Stirred up by the tribunes, plebeians rush on stage, rioting during a famine as they try to break in to the food depot. Then, members of the ruling class enter wearing evening dress to put them in their place. Coriolanus may be called away to fight the Volscians, but the battle lines are firmly drawn within Rome itself.
Jackson’s production is dynamically staged, with thrilling combat scenes (fight director Terry King), but some of the richness of Shakespeare’s language is lost through flat delivery. There are nice touches of humour involving a gossipy family friend and a camp servant but sometimes the comedy is out of place, in particular presenting Coriolanus’s Volscian rival Aufidius as overcome by an adolescent crush for him – yes, the homoeroticism is there in the original but it should be a visceral love/hate relationship in which there can only be one eventual winner.
Designer Robert Innes Hopkins’ industrial setting is counterpointed with some classical statuary referencing Ancient Rome. The stark lighting from Richard Howell contributes to the unsettling ambience. Mira Calix’s rhapsodic score performed live by string players and a female singer seems incongruous but is perhaps intended to evoke a terrible beauty in the epic tale.
The celebrated RSC production that came to the Barbican in 1994 made the name of Toby Stephens who played Coriolanus as a posh, laddish ex-public schoolboy full of inherited class prejudice. This time Sope Dirisu is more of a macho fighter whose sense of superiority is based on his physical prowess and unswerving courage. He certainly looks the part with his impressive virile presence, seen at his best in the battle scenes dripping with blood and sweat, so that you believe he almost single-handedly ensures victory over the enemy. It’s an assured RSC debut, even if he is slightly undercharged vocally on the large Barbican stage.
Coriolanus’s Oedipal relationship with Volumnia comes across clearly. Haydn Gwynne plays her as a formidable aristocratic matriarch who sees each of her son’s wounds as a badge of honour and revels in his bloodthirsty bravado as if vicariously living out her own thwarted impulses. Only she has the power to sway Coriolanus’s actions which she does to moving effect in the emotional climax of the play. In the underwritten role of Virgilia, Hannah Morrish contrasts as the meek, sensitive wife who is afraid of what may happen to her young boy’s father.
Paul Jesson is excellent as the smooth-talking patrician elder Menenius, a shrewd political manipulator whose art of persuasion for once fails to stop strife breaking out. James Corrigan suggests the obsessive watchfulness of the general Aufidius without capturing the burning intensity needed for the nemesis of Coriolanus, who is buried with full military honours.
Coriolanus is on until 18 November 2017 at the Barbican. Click here for more details.