The Royal Shakespeare Company brings its Rome season to a close with Coriolanus, a heavily political play about one of the Bard’s least likeable heroes.
It is a stretch to call this soldier-not-statesman an anti-hero. He doesn’t endear himself to anyone. Even his mother raises her eyebrows and wonders what to do with him.
Arrogant, uncivil, proud and utterly contemptuous of “the common people” he’s forced into a role that he is ill-suited for and ultimately plays the price.
The RSC’s modern dress adaptation, directed by Angus Jackson, had a rowdy opening last night in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.
The plebs were up in arms. Hoodies up, bandanas masking their unwashed faces, the starving rabble revolted, furious that they were being denied corn while the wealthy and entitled feasted in black tie and opulence.
Caius Martius doesn’t understand it. He sneers at the mob, insults and berates them. His swagger infuriates them.
He has absolutely no inkling about the diplomacy of politics or the humility of a successful politician.
So imagine Coriolanus as an Eton-educated, Sandhurst-trained, Tory toff and the tragedy immediately connects to some of today’s audiences, particularly with last night’s dress circle boosted by school trippers.
Teenagers would probably understand the injustice of always being cast as the minority and underdog.
There is always someone older, wiser and better placed barking orders – whether your’e 15, long-term unemployed or a refugee.
There is even a quiet dig at Brexiteers lurking in the text, intentionally or otherwise, as Rome’s leaders denounce the will of the people as a fad and insist that their voices offer the only valid way forward.
The production opens with pallets of grain sitting on the stage. A laddo, no doubt suitably qualified, sits in a fork lift truck and skilfully manoeuvres it to shift the cargo from one part of the stage into a warehouse behind.
For this he earns applause. Probably the first time anyone has clapped such a menial and everyday task.
Sope Dirisu’s career soldier, Caius is being pushed into high office by his mother, Volumnia (Haydn Gwynne). But this mummy’s boy is reluctant. He would have to serve the people and he has absolutely no time for the man in the street.
But politics is put on the back burner when he must, once again, go out, gung-ho fashion to quash an uprising by Rome’s neighbours, whose army is led by his life-long enemy, Tullus Aufidius.
Cue much grappling between men in black until Aufidius – James Corrigan, enjoying a great year with the RSC as its go-to guy for physical roles requiring sword-fighting and all-out machismo – takes on the Roman army leader.
The result is one very blood-soaked Caius who is instantly crowned the battle’s victor and renamed Coriolanus.
Once back in town he must resume his dreaded calling but it doesn’t go well. The great unwashed now have their own representatives and both of them (Martina Laird and Jackie Morrison – Angus Jackson suggesting women are ill-suited to government perhaps?) whip up the crowd against heroic Coriolanus.
Banished, he does what only he can – seek a brutal vengeance.
The problem with Coriolanus is that it is impossible to feel any sympathy for him. He is one of the privileged elite, living a life of luxury.
He despises the lower classes who should be jolly thankful for any crumb of sustenance that might be thrown their way.
Any suggestion of democracy is fiercely resisted by him. He is appalled at having to throw himself on their mercy.
He’s not being modest, just incapable of humility and compassion. We see him raging against the people, against other politicians, even against his own family. What is there to like?
Well, Dirisu’s perfectly measured performance is fast and furious. He physically convinces as someone capable of handling himself in a fight and verbally excels in delivering his speeches with unbridled passion. Just his scowl is enough to make enemies quiver.
Corrigan’s wily Aufidius, proves that it is possible to be a master swordsman and still play the diplomacy game. The way he reels in his unsuspecting enemy is quite ingenious.
Paul Jesson gives a fine performance as the elder statesman, Menenius, who knows the power of words and is a sharp negotiator. Very much the Henry Kissinger of his day.
And Hadyn Gwynne serves up an emotionally powerful performance as Volumnia. Her entreaty to make her son see sense is beautifully performed, making a real statement in a play that is heavy on testosterone.
Coriolanus plays in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until October 14 when it will transfer to London’s Barbican Theatre, running November 6-18. The production can also be seen Live From Stratford-upon-Avon in cinemas on October 11.
Anti-hero, anti-diplomat but single-minded and full of passion. Sope Dirisu delivers a powerful, full-throttle turn as Coriolanus at the RSC.