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CORIOLANUS RSC, Stratford Upon Avon


Coriolanus doesn’t often hit the modern stage: its plot, a hymn to the necessary evil of educated patrician privilege in order to provide for the politically fickle, unthinking plebeian multitude, doesn’t sit at all well with modern political correctness. Even in an age of Remoaning, as the failed political class continue to wring their well-manicured hands across the media at a wider populace daring to voice their disenchanted perspective on the world, the entrenched snobbery of Coriolanus can scarcely be rehabilitated for us – especially in this politically incoherent production from Angus Jackson for the RSC, which tries very hard (in line with modern tastes) to back the plebeians, and ends up fighting the play itself as a result. Jackson turns the plebeian tribunes Sicinius Veletus and Junius Brutus into left-wing female politicians, who thus arrive on the modern stage endowed with the composure of genuine moral authority; their conniving treachery, implied hypocrisy and final, catastrophic pursuit of self-interest are barely criticised by Jackson, who meanwhile does his best to discredit the elite, yet fails. Shakespeare has already exposed the problems at the top of this society, but simultaneously provides the strongest possible argument for their maintenance by revealing the steadily grosser inadequacies all the way down the food chain; his original narrative arc shines through in spite of Jackson’s direction, rather than thanks to it.

The production looks wonderfully slick: a clean black stage, with buildings from grain stores to palaces cleverly contrived by sliding metal walls, with curtains to soften lines for interior scenes, and the public marketplace indicated by rolled-on mountains of steel seating and podiums which rise immaculately from the floor. The judicious inclusion of a couple of classical statues remind us of Rome, although we could be in any global city where the rich have become socially isolated and disconnected from the poor, whose approval they nevertheless require to wield power. Lighting by Richard Howell is smart, dramatic and exciting, but fight scenes fail to gel, as men in contemporary combat dress swipe at each other inappropriately with swords: a hand-to-hand tussle between Coriolanus and his enemy Aufidius feels more convincingly violent. The elite often appear in black tie, while the plebeians wear hoodies and baseball caps: both feel like tired, over-obvious stereotypes, particularly when improbably brought together on one stage. Meanwhile, very subtle distinctions in uniform between Romans and Volscians don’t make for clear storytelling in battle scenes, nor does the monochrome, placeless setting give us any convincing narrative context for their continuous aggression. However, Coriolanus’ ego-driven mistakes still rise to a satisfying psychological boiling point in the second half, diction and delivery are superb throughout, and the whole thing is worth watching for Haydn Gwynne’s magnificent Volumnia, a Roman matriarch of blood-curdling power and magnetic presence, elegantly supported by Hannah Morrish as a delicate, vulnerable Virgilia. Paul Jesson’s urbane, avuncular and surprisingly brave Menenius is another treat. Sope Dirisu’s crisp, soldierly but ultimately too straightforward Coriolanus is overshadowed by James Corrigan’s altogether more emotionally sophisticated Aufidius, who finally proves himself a better warrior in words; the one battlefield where Coriolanus is tragically fated to always lose.


Rating: Three 3 Meece Rating


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The plebs are angry,  scrawling demands for grain on the bare back wall,  modern in hoodies and jeans.  They reckon the senators get all the good stuff.   Smooth-talking Menenius (Mark Gatiss) elegantly expounds the metaphor of the belly which seems to steal the food but actually supports the limbs and brain.  Unimpressed, the Roman mob insist on two of their own as Tribunes, a fledgling democracy.

But there’s a war on with the Volscii,  and Caius Martius Coriolanus has come home a bloodstained hero, to be acclaimed Consul.  Tom Hiddleston takes centre stage: lean , hawkish, leathered, arrogant:   accustomed to urge his troops by taunting them, he promptly demonstrates that soldierly command does not necessarily make a peacetme leader.  He insults the “beastly plebeians…crows that peck the eagles..rotten breath of fetid marsh” (many a minister must envy this refreshing frankness) . The people’s tribunes  (Helen Schlesinger and Elliot Levey, beautifully smug)  banish him.

Retorting “I banish YOU!” he heads to Antium to offer his services or his bared throat to his former enemy Aufidius (Hadley Fraser).  Who, in a remarkable homoerotic moment diluted by “Know thou first, I love the maid I married”  lavishly embraces and recruits him to sack Rome. Fellow Volscii (who conveniently all talk Yorkshire) look on stunned: for  there are merciful moments in Josie Rourke’s thrilling, headlong, tragedy-driven production where she allows us a gust of laughter.

After Phyllida Lloyd’s fine all-woman Julius Caesar, the Donmar once again offers raw, political Shakespeare proving that an intimate space can contain epic savagery and the fate of empires.  The staging is simple, fast-moving, the main props chairs,  but has dramatically clever moments.   Hiddleston in the first act stands beneath a shower of water wincing as his many wounds are struck,  an evocation of the reality of pain often missing in gung-ho warrior depictions.  Great moments too for Mark Gatiss’ Menenius,  watching helpless as his friend and protegé ruins himself,  murmuring “He is grown from man to dragon”.

But the tremendous thing about this play, not performed as often as other Shakespeariana,  is the powerful role of Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia: ferocious, devoted, proud of every scar but warning “submit you to the people’s voices!”.   Deborah Findlay beautifully plays it, allowing absurdities in her martial enthusiasm but stripping her heart bare in desperation at the final cathartic scene when, with his wife and son,   she must beg him not to destroy the city.

The hero, famously enigmatic with barely any soliloquy,  sometimes seems just a ruthless  hard-bodied column of offended pride and nihilism,  snarling “Wife, mother, child, I know not”.     Only at last does he move towards a suicidal redemption. Hiddleston carries this strange stark part with a frozen  damaged dignity,  thawing only with his mother :  he and Findlay create thrilling moments of mutuality, the invisible bond crackling between them.

Another triumph, then.  But I must murmur that ever since Sam Mendes hung Kevin Spacey’s Richard III up by the ankles at the Old Vic, we are getting tired of up-endings: this season alone chaps dangled head-down in Mojo, Let The Right One In, and now this. Don’t want to go back to the monotony of the classic “RSC Armpit Death” sword thrust,  but it is time to suspend suspensions.

box office   0844 871 7624   to 8 feb.
Production sponsors: Radisson Blu Edwardian / C and S Sherling.   Ongoing partner: Barclays.

rating:  four    4 Meece Rating
box office   0844 871 7624   to 8 feb.
Production sponsors: Radisson Blu Edwardian / C and S Sherling.   Ongoing partner: Barclays.

Production will be on 300 screens nationwide on 30 January    http://www.ntlive.com

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