Ultimately this production of Coriolanus does not deserve either a decisive thumbs up or thumbs down, but there is still a sense of missed opportunities and fumbled high-points. As an action-man drama it is excellent, but as an exploration of the complex relationship between political personality, family tensions, and class strife it is inadequate and fails to engage with the subject matter that truly counts.

CoriolanusCoriolanus comes to the Barbican as the first instalment of the RSC’s Roman season as a transfer from Stratford. Any production of this under-performed play from the peak of the playwright’s career is welcome, but this one is a very indifferent vehicle for conveying the greatness of this study in ornery character and wily, intricate, switch-back politics.

While there are several fine supporting performances and an intriguingly flexible set, the poor and cavalier handling of the text makes the first half a real grind and ordeal to sit through. In the second half where there is more action, and rather less politics and poetry, the scenes flow more freely, redeeming some of the previous torpor.

This is more a mythological than historical play, with the focus on political archetypes that easily transcend the Roman era: the focused, austere proud patrician soldier, as ill-adapted to politics as he is ferociously successful on the battlefield; the mother who has made her son so through trying to live her life through his; the smooth equivocating and calculating tribunes seeking to exploit tensions between people and senators to their own advantage; the senators aiming to protect their own privileged position; the people, easily led, and hovering between hero worship and mob rule; and the rivals to Rome, hoping to exploit Rome’s internal divisions to their own advantage.

CoriolanusSome of these roles are excellently inhabited. Paul Jesson’s polished and emollient Menenius is the epitome of an establishment figure engaged in self-preservation, shaping the text meaningfully to his advantage. The way he delivers the famous speech about the belly’s role in the body politic is a lovely example of this from which his colleagues sadly do not learn.

The same may be said for Haydn Gwynne’s Volumnia, though she is best at projecting the fierceness of her character in the first half (‘Anger is my meat’), which leaves her great speech of supplication to her son somehow lacking in emotional light and shade.

James Corrigan is excellent in the somewhat ungrateful role of Tullus Aufidius, easily inhabiting the physical demands and finding more of a homoerotic bromance with Coriolanus than is usual. This certainly helps to make a lot more sense of his final act of violence, which can often seem jarring and simply unexpected.

CoriolanusAs the two ambitious tribunes, Martina Laird and Jackie Morrison are all too convincing as politicians for whom every event offers possibilities that could be turned to their gain. They certainly never miss an opportunity to take every advantage of a disaster or crisis. This was one of the occasions when gender-blind casting really worked to advantage in focusing attention on the processes of Machiavellian chicanery involved, irrespective of gender.

The crowd is an important player here just as it is in Julius Caesar. While the individuals are well projected, the whole is neither as volatile nor as menacing as it needs to be, especially in the interactions with the senators. Menenius has it too easy in winning them over: for these scenes to work they need to be more fickle and unpredictable and, quite simply, dangerous. This group seemed no more menacing than the crowd outside IKEA on Boxing Day…..

This play stands or falls on its central character who bestrides each act. While it is not necessarily a middle-aged role, it does need to be played with a settled maturity and persona that was sadly not present in Sope Dirisu’s performance, at least not until the very final stages. The martial side of the role was easily his grasp, athletically so; but he failed to use the knotty but refulgent poetry of his speeches to good advantage to suggest the conflicts of the man within.

CoriolanusIn the crucial market-place scene he did not really evince his disdain for the people or the tensions within himself between hauteur and self-contempt. His performance was at its best in his scenes with Corrigan, especially at the Volscian banquet, with its exquisite trade-offs between low comedy and grand rhetoric. Exile suited him better than home.

The climactic scene with his mother which should bring all the strands of the play together in one confrontation also seemed underpowered and lacking in really detailed direction. The sense of climactic struggle and the transcendent pain of ‘O Mother, mother, what have you done?’ were not truly present or felt as they should be.

This is more a directorial than a performer’s problem. Naturalistic acting with an easy slippage into violence is the default mode for so much television and film performance nowadays that it is easy to assume that this will take you much of the way into these warrior roles. However, in a stage context it takes encouragement and detailed training to encompass and find the vein of self-conscious heroism that is needed among the patrician generals on stage, and Coriolanus in particular.

CoriolanusIt is both sad and ironic that actors cannot find the right rhetoric with which to woo their public just as the central character in this play cannot find it within himself to offer the right rhetoric of submission to the plebs that will enable him to become consul.

Designer Robert Innes Hopkins does a fine job with a series of metal shutters in varying our sense of location from interior to exterior, from battlefield or market-place to Deco drawing room. There are always interesting vistas through intriguing doorways in the domestic episodes, or acres of open space to accommodate the crowd and battle scenes.

Modern-dress costume suits this play well, and still allows social distinctions to be drawn between plebs and patricians. There was an extensive musical soundtrack provided for a singer and small ensemble by composer Mira Calix. This was sweet on the ear, with the spirit of Monteverdi not far away, but rarely enhanced or added to the meaning of the action in significant ways.

CoriolanusUltimately this production does not deserve either a decisive thumbs up or thumbs down, but there is still a sense of missed opportunities and fumbled high-points. As an action-man drama it is excellent, but as an exploration of the complex relationship between political personality, family tensions, and class strife it is inadequate and fails to engage with the subject matter that truly counts.

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Tim Hochstrasser

A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…