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Review: (****) RSC production of Coriolanus

This production of Coriolanus runs at The Barbican in London, from Nov 6th to Nov 18th. This review is based on a performance of the same production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon on 14th October.

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There was a Cinema screening on 11th October ’17, so perhaps there will be ‘encore’ performances shortly.

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Our Bottom Line:

This is a full-scale production of Coriolanus  with a full cast of around 35 actors. An excellent set; superb lighting and music; with performances to match.  It challenges many of the assumptions of our current times. If you get the opportunity to see it, go!

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Our Review (****) 

I saw this production at the RSC’s Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The production has now moved to The Barbican in London, where it opens on November 6th, and runs until 18th November.

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For readers not in the UK , the Royal Shakespeare Company is based in Stratford-upon-Avon. Their main theatre is The Royal Shakespeare Theatre,  with a thrust stage projecting out into the auditorium, the audience of around 1,400 making a horseshoe around the stage, in three tiers. The theatre has sophisticated theatrical facilities allowing the creative team to do magical things with set, lights, and music. They take some productions to The Barbican in London.

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For this production, the play was set in an indeterminate age.The play takes place in Ancient Rome, after the overthrow of the Roman kings, and whilst the aristocrats and the plebs were struggling for dominance. The costumes were modern, but the actors used swords. The set was modern, starting with a large metal grill across the back of the stage representing perhaps, the entrance to a warehouse where grain was stored.. At various times, a couple of metal galleries were brought on stage, particularly for scenes with the Roman citizens, perhaps in the Forum.

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The lighting was superb and subtle: at times it threw sshadows across the stage and  out into the audience; when Coriolanus raised his bloody hands on high, the lights highlit drops of blood, dripping from his fingers; when he spoke in anger, the spray of spittle was caught by the lights.

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In ‘the orchestra pit’ – actually on one of the galleries, there was a string trio + keyboards + voice, performing atmospheric music especially composed for the production by Mira Calix, and based on an anonymous text on the struggle for grain.

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The play starts with Roman citizens rioting for grain. This riot was performed by 20+ actors (out of a cast of 33!). It is quite rare now to see so many actors on stage at once, and it is impressive. The rioters fear that the aristocrats (senators) are not sharing the grain fairly. A Roman general Caius Martius, lwith others, tries to pacify them.

 

Caius soon leaves to quell a rebellion by the Volscians, with much personal bravery, and is re-named ‘Coriolanus‘ because of his victories. He returns to Rome and is asked to stand as Consul by the Senate. He refuses to listen to the Senate hearing which proposes him as consul.,  He has the arrogance and values of an Achilles, or in Elizabethan times, perhaps the Earl of Essex .

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His values are perhaps quite alien to the modern age. As one of the Consuls says of him:

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COMINIUS
I shall lack voice: the deeds of Coriolanus
Should not be uttered feebly: it is held,
That Valour is the chiefest Virtue,
And most dignifies the haver.
(Act Two Scene Two)

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Coriolanus has Valour, is an aristocrat, and has no time for the plebs. He  upsets them by refusing to show his wounds to them, so  asking for their support to be Consul,  out of aristocratic pride.

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This conflict between the aristocratic / heroic virtues of Coriolanus and the emerging democratic views of the plebs can be confusing for a modern audience. We are so wedded to the idea of the supremacy of democracy, that it is confusing to be presented with the idea that is inherent in the play, that  the voice of the people is not always right. Perhaps with the UK voting to leave the EU, and  the election of Donald Trump as president, we will become more willing to consider that idea.

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The plebs have their way. Coriolanus, due to his anger and contempt for the plebs, is exiled from Rome. He decides to throw in his lot with the Volscian rebels, and fight to overthrow Rome.

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In the second half of the play, we move away from the political battle between the aristocrats and the plebs, and the play becomes more personal.

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It focuses on the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother, Volumnia; but also his relationship with his wife Virgilia; and his enemy, now colleague, Aufidius, military leader of the rebelling Volscians.

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Again, Volumnia has values which are quite alien to modern mothers:

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VOLUMNIA
….[ Blood] more becomes a man
Than gilt his Trophy. The breasts of Hecuba
When she did suckle Hector, looked not lovelier
Than Hector’s forehead, when it spit forth blood
At Grecian sword contemning.
(Act One Scene Three)

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She is also a widowed mother. She has brought up Coriolanus without a father. Interestingly, the Ancient Romans believed (see Plutarch’s Life of Coriolanus) that a child brought up without a father was likely to be unruly, undisciplined, and far too individualistic. (If they’re right, we’re in for some interesting times, with the large number of single-mother families today.]

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After Coriolanus‘ exile, Volumnia turns to anger in what again seems strange emotions:

VOLUMNIA
Anger’s my Meat: I sup upon myself,
And so shall starve with Feeding: come, let’s go,
Leave this faint-puling, and lament as I do,
In Anger, Juno-like:
(Act Four Scene Two)

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Coriolanus has turned against his country. The Volscians have made him one of the commanders of their army. He approaches Rome to raze it to the ground. The Romans, including the plebs, are terrified.  They send senators to plead with him, but they have no success.

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Eventually, Volumnia, his mother, Virgilia, his wife, and Martius, his son, go to plead with him.

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In the most moving scene of the play (Act Five Scene Three) his mother pleads with Coriolanus, in front of Aufidius, to make peace between Rome and the Volscians.  As Coriolanus begins to waver, at the crux of the scene, mother and son hold hands, and there is a silent pause, brilliantly timed in the performance I saw,  before Coriolanus, knowing it will likely lead to his death agrees. The undisciplined, arrogant son, has been persuaded by his mother.

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These personal scenes between mother and son are easy to empathize with, particularly with performances as strong as these from Sope Dirisu (Coriolanus) and Haydn Gwnne (Volumnia).

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The cast are  evenly strong, but as well as these two principals, there are two more I have to mention.

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Virgilia is a pig of a role. She is the wife of Coriolanus but has very few lines in which to express her emotions as a loving wife. Hannah Morrish, brilliantly converts this problem into a well-taken opportunity, by playing Virgilia as an incoherent woman able only to express her feelings for her husband physically.

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And finally we have to mention Aufidius (played well by James Corrigan), the military leader of the Volscians who completes the tragedy by killing Coriolanus. The relationship between Coriolanus and Aufidius is strange, at least to this straight, non-militaristic, chap.  They have fought twelve times, and each time Coriolanus has won. And yet their enmity is mixed with passionate love:

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AUFIDIUS:
Thou hast beat me out
Twelve several times, and I have nightly since
Dreamt of encounters ‘twixt thyself and me
We have been down together in my sleep,
Unbuckling helms, fisting each other’s throat—
And waked half dead with nothing.
(Coriolanus, 4.5.110-127)

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This review has mostly been an exploration of the plot of CoriolanusWhy have I adopted that approach? One of the roles of theatre is to challenge the assumptions of the audience. This production certainly challenged my assumptions.  I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

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What happened to the missing star? I wish the production had found some way of making the conflict between the aristocrats and the plebs clearer for the audience. The problem is inherent in the play for a modern audience, but there must be some clever way of  getting the audience empathising with Coriolanus earlier.

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Richard Forsyth
‘The Director’
Players-Shakespeare.com

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