13th Nov, 2018

RCS's Coriolanus review: modern political parallels brought to the fore

Coriolanus

Royal Shakespeare Theatre

As an examination of the use and abuse of power and influence, this production of one of Shakespeare’s more unremittingly serious texts hits the spot in the end after a slightly muddy journey.

At the mercy of spin, pressure, coercion and crowd manipulation, nobody is safe from the twisted world of human politics. Our fate clearly rests in the hands of those who control the agenda and the future doesn’t look good – think dire Brexit warnings and claims of fake news from all sides. Parallels with political manipulation in the modern era are relevant and, in Angus Jackson’s production, clearly brought to the fore.

Judging by the amount of full-on bellowing in the first half, we are in a political world based more on brute force that subtle machinations. It’s a tough listen at times as many moments slide a little out of control and clarity is lost.

As Coriolanus, Sope Dirisu leads the cast well in a strong portrayal of a man more comfortable with physical action than with cerebral ponderings. Like most of the cast his performance really comes alive in the second half where we see compassion, love and reason eat into his bluff soldierly resolve. A belated respite from the machine-gun delivery of the earlier scenes allows a lot more light and shade to come out. The exchanges between Coriolanus and sworn enemy Aufidius (James Corrigan) and his own mother Volumnia (Haydn Gwynne) more than make up for the slightly one-paced first half.

Haydn Gwynne is excellent throughout as is James Corrigan. Both take the time and trouble to inject personality, nuance and even humour into a production becoming occasionally becalmed on its own interminable full-volume arguments.

Visually the production makes excellent use of the vast open spaces. Robert Innes Hopkins’ design centres on three huge metal shutters and long cloths to cut up the stage and define different locations. Strong lighting helps produce a handful of memorable images particularly in the more threatening, violent scenes.

Mira Calix provides music which sparks where it touches but is, given the resources on offer, criminally underused.

The crowd – so vital to the tidal changes in the action – is well-handled and there is throughout a poignant unspoken difference between the well-dressed haves and the downtrodden have-nots. Power evidently comes at a cost and those who have it are in no mood to share it.

The production concludes, of course, with the death of Coriolanus. If ever there were a demonstration of how serene glory is often founded on the grubbiest of human actions, this was it. Dirty, unseemly and horribly protracted. An image which underlines the real cost of power politics in Rome and so many societies since.

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