In his second longest play, Shakespeare chronicles the election to, and subsequent removal from, the position of consul – a magistrate wielding executive power – of Caius Martius Coriolanus, played here by Sope Dirisu.
Coriolanus is elected to consul by his fellow societal-elites: a war hero and defender of the city from the neighbouring Volscians, Coriolanus is, in their eyes, the epitome of the perfect Roman citizen. Not so to the common folk – the plebeians – who despise Coriolanus and attempt to block his appointment to the senate through their tribunes. The play is one of Shakespeare’s most complex works, juggling numerous motifs from class war to the relationship between mother and son, all with the noticeable absent of soliloquises – so often an audience’s insight into the minds of Shakespeare’s characters.
With no running commentary on Coriolanus’s thoughts, the task of inhabiting the title role becomes considerably more difficult, but it is one Dirisu steps up to. He commands the stage with an presence that is palpable from the stalls, instilling fear, awe, or joy when the moment is right. His speeches are delivered with suitable emotion while avoiding becoming hammy and taking his RSC debut in his stride. Crucially, Dirisu avoids portraying Coriolanus definitively as an anti-hero or a villain. Instead, Coriolanus’s merits and flaws are left for the audience to weigh, like any good electorate should.
The performances from the rest of the cast range from good to exceptional. James Corrigan struggles in the first half of the play as Tullus Aufidius – head of the Volscian army – but his relationship with Coriolanus in the latter half is executed well, and provides one of the production’s most engaging scenes.
Paul Jesson embodies Mennenius with a Brian-Blessed-esque level of joviality, while Hannah Morrish as Virgilia – Martius’s wife – performs her role beautifully on the fringes of the action as ‘the strong, silent type’ to quote Tony Soprano. And Katherine Toy’s small role as Valeria provides superb comic relief.
Production value is also excellent. The quick scene changes, from minimalistic urban squalor to equally minimalistic, but ever more polished, luxurious Roman living quarters provide a noteworthy juxtaposition between the rich and poor. All of which is rounded off with composer Mira Calix’s score and Alexandra Ferrari’s operatic aria to compliment the play’s defining moments with tingling beauty.
The star of the show however is Haydn Gwynne as Volumnia, Coriolanus’s mother. Gwynne, in conjunction with Dirisu, plays out the most intriguing and complex mother-son relationship in any Shakespeare play, Hamlet included. Volumnia makes no secret of her influence on Coriolanus and her desire to paint him as a war hero to appease the plebeians. On hearing of Coriolanus return to the city after battle, she remarks “O he is wounded; I thank the gods for’t.” Her power awards her the stage’s best real estate, with Volumnia occupying its centre whenever she speaks, displacing even Coriolanus.
It is here, in the moments mother and son spend together, when the adaptation comes into its own. No truer is this than in Act V Scene III, where an outcast Coriolanus – having vowed to destroy Rome with the Volscians and take revenge on the plebeians – is begged by Virgilia and his son to return home in peace. When neither wife nor child can convince Coriolanus, the task is left to his mother. After pleading with and begging her child to forgive the city, Volumnia takes Coriolanus’s hand and the pair fall into silence. Perhaps ironically for Shakespeare, it is not the role of a speech or a soliloquy to provide the play’s most critical and emotional moment, but the stage direction that follows Volumnia’s plea: He holds her hand, silent. Coriolanus breaks down and succumbs, once again, to his mother’s will. His lust for revenge vanishes as quickly as it arrived.
As with Dirisu, Gwynne gives the audience enough material to form an opinion on Volumnia, without dictating their feelings. We’re never quite sure if Volumnia’s motives are that of an overbearing mother, desperate to see her son achieve is full potential, or a puppet-master attempting to realise he own lust for power through her son.
Regardless of her motives, her plans ultimately fall flat, as Coriolanus is killed by Aufidius in the final scene. Sadly, it is here where the play itself falls flat. Angus Jackson, the director, and production team have made much in the run-up to opening night of the fittingness of Coriolanus in the modern political landscape. Here we have a would-be political leader who cares not for pandering to the electorate, instead insisting ‘Action is eloquence’; a tactic that, despite its honourability, bears no fruit. Fitting indeed, in a ‘post-truth’ world, where populism seems to reign supreme. But the production fails – if you will allow the reviewer – to breath enough breathlessness into Shakespeare’s text at the key political moments. The play’s opening riot scene feels disjointed from the rest of the play, and Coriolanus’s death – the only in the play – is far too muted to make jaws drop.
Coriolanus sets out to provide an on-the-pulse commentary of current affairs, but comes up short. Instead, the play shines in its character development. From bit-parts to the roles of Volumnia and Coriolanus himself, the actors shine and give the play an abundance of soul that could touch even the most hardened of war-heroes.
Coriolanus runs to 18th November at the Barbican. Tickets £10-57.50. 20 £5 tickets are reserved for students at each performance. The Rome MMXVII season runs until early 2018.