If Wesley Snipes did Shakespeare, it would probably be something like this. At one point Coriolanus the action man (Sope Dirisu) emerges from battle in a sweat-soaked vest and gleaming with an almost comical superabundance of blood. This powerhouse production may be light on political nuance but it is gratifyingly heavy on trash talk, dick-swinging and violence.
The plot, briefly, is this. Coriolanus returns from battle pumped up on victory, then puts himself up for power. There is a problem. He thinks the plebs are a bunch of good-for-nothing pricks and he can’t help telling them this: “You common cry of curs! Whose breath I hate.” Not surprisingly, they rise up against him. Fuelled by rage, he pals up with his former enemy Tullus Aufidius (James Corrigan) and resolves to march on Rome, but is talked out of it at the last moment by his mother (Haydn Gwynne) and wife (Hannah Morrish).
The production begins in a modern warehouse in which stacks of grain, of which there is a decided shortage, are being moved around by a worker on a forklift truck. Suddenly the shutters are besieged by a hungry, rioting mob, a situation which must be managed between the Tribunes, the people’s representatives, and the scheming, self-serving patricians.
In such circumstances one can see how a straight-talking warrior like Coriolanus would be seen as the man to bridge the gap. Dirisu is a rectangular wedge of muscle, with a finely chiselled jaw, and in his military gear he looks like a real badass; indeed, there are some impressively choreographed action sequences involving sabres and hand to hand combat which wouldn’t look out of place in an action movie. Credit to Terry King here.
Robert Innes Hopkins’ bleak industrial design, in which natural daylight is hard to come by, works in shades of black, grey and charcoal and we always seem to be behind this, that or the other – a dinner party, a large government building, a warehouse, the front line – which is perhaps where all the real power struggles occur. There is no opulence here: these are times of austerity.
Jackie Morrison and Martina Laird present the Tribunes as stuffy, combative union leaders pitched in proletarian contrast to Paul Jesson’s immaculately turned-out, wise patrician elder. Morrish is radiant as Coriolanus’ wife, a pacifying jewel beside Gwynne’s fiercely maternal Volumnia. Corrigan, meanwhile, successfully captures Aufidius’ ambivalent attitude towards Coriolanus. His fierce passion, it seems, runs towards the homoerotic almost as much as it does towards hatred. In the final scene, his violent, protracted crushing of Coriolanus’ windpipe is followed by silent seconds of tender embrace.
Angus Jackson’s final, adrenalin-pumped production of the Rome Season favours the sensual over the cerebral, the visual over the verbal. Unless, as Coriolanus insists, “action is eloquence”. In which case this was a very eloquent production indeed.
Coriolanus is at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, until October 14th, then at the Barbican from November 6th until November 18th. There’s a live cinema broadcast on October 11th. For more details, click here.