Thursday, 19 October 2017


Personality politics in Shakespeare’s late tragedy make for a politically relevant night out.  

Sope Dirisu as Coriolanus (Image copyright: RSC)

I’ve recently started volunteering at the Marina Theatre in Lowestoft. One of the reasons I was drawn to it, apart from an interest in all things entertainment, was because, thanks to advances in technology, the Marina now presents screenings of theatrical productions from around the country. The town is in for a varied cultural feast in the coming months, as the Marina plays host to Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, Tennessee Williams’ febrile drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Shakespeare’s Roman epic Julius Caesar, among others.

I can’t recommend this way of watching theatre highly enough. It’s like you’re sitting in all the best seats in the house at once, with the benefit of a zoom lens so you can focus on intimate details of expression and nuance, as well as take in all the action that’s happening on the stage in long shot. When you consider that the average seat at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre or at the National Theatre is around £30, £15 for this all-inclusive viewing experience is staggeringly good value for money (even if it is slightly surreal being able to watch the televised audience eat their ice cream during the interval).

The Marina’s presentation on Thursday 12 October, direct from London’s Barbican Theatre, was Coriolanus, another of Shakespeare’s Roman plays and part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Rome season, that also includes Titus Andronicus and William Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage. The RSC delivers a comprehensive package, including a pre-match style chat with the director Angus Jackson, who provides some historical context and insight into why the production was staged in modern dress. Principally, Jackson reasoned that the “hierarchy of togas” among the Roman nobles, Senate and Tribunes would be “hard to spot” for a modern audience.

(Image copyright: RSC)
There was more to it than that. One of Shakespeare’s last tragedies, it’s full of contemporary resonances which the decision to dress the production in a modern way reinforces. When the “common people” begin rioting because they’re starving, the ruling caste of patricians appease them by creating two people’s representatives, or Tribunes (Jackie Morrison and Martina Laird, left), who change the previously inaccessible political process of the Roman Senate. The way Morrison’s Sicinus and Laird’s Junius are styled and played – though its subtly done – brings to mind the Scottish National Party’s Nicola Sturgeon Labour’s Diane Abbott, militant MPs who in one way or another have had a radical impact on British politics.

The Tribunes’ nemesis is the charismatic but arrogant Roman general Caius Martius (Sope Dirisu), who Rome's blue-collar class blame for depriving them of grain, while Martius himself makes no secret of his contempt for them. When Caius wins a decisive battle against the bordering Volscians, led by his old adversary Tullus Aufidius (James Corrigan), for the town of Corioli, he is re-christened ‘Coriolanus’. The jubilant patricians encourage him to stand as Rome’s consul, a political move that brings Coriolanus into conflict with the Tribunes, resulting in his banishment from Rome and egotistical desire for revenge at the head of Aufidius’ Volscian army.

In the RSC’s 2017 Coriolanus, you can see reflected modern leaders like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage, who are big on personality but have a casual disregard for reasoned policy, political allegiances and civil liberties – the Tribunes suspect Martius could become a tyrant, and he only ever has his own selfish interests at heart (or those of his mother Volumnia (Haydn Gwynn), the only person who can sway his will), an attitude which proves to be his downfall.

Dirisu’s Coriolanus has a formidable, chiselled physicality, particularly in the battle scenes and a protracted duel with Auffidius, although he is slightly more one dimensional as a political speaker and in the family scenes. In Shakespeare’s most linear tragedy, where the central figure lacks the complexity of a Hamlet, Lear or a Macbeth and is more of a symbol, perhaps that’s deliberate.

(Image copyright: RSC)
Coriolanus is given dramatic context by Paul Jesson’s Menenius, the likeable patrician Senator who initially champions Martius’ nomination as consul. Jesson’s is an engaging and humane performance, made all the more affecting when he collapses emotionally after his pleas for Coriolanus to spare Rome are rejected by his former protégé. James Corrigan’s Auffidius (right) – who, for me, earns the acting honours in this production – through a mesmerising combination of humour, suspicion, pragmatic insight and respect (that might be slightly homoerotic), eventually realises how dangerous and unpredictable a force Coriolanus is. Haydn Gwynne shares the acting plaudits, sensitively and unwittingly sealing her son’s fate by appealing to his better nature. Her performance is so good that you almost overlook this rather obvious piece of plotting that sets up the climax of the play.

With stark production design based around a grilled metal wall and shutter, this Coriolanus succeeds as a grim warning about personality politics. Once again, William S. proves himself to be one of the most prophetic writers in the English language, with a play that’s hundreds of years old but still remarkably up to the minute.

All in all, a satisfying cultural night out in Lowestoft and a significant feather in the theatrical cap of the Marina.