Angus Jackson bookends the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Rome season, his traditional dress Julius Caesar having opened it he now caps it off with a modern set Coriolanus. If the latter is the least well known of Shakespeare’s Roman plays its central theme – dissent of the masses against an ignorant ruling class – is surely as pertinent as any of the Bard’s work in the current climate.
Sadly, unlike Jackson’s Caesar which sparkled with a modern but interesting approach to the verse despite the outmoded design this production puts style over substance. In the opening preamble a forklift driver transports pallets of grain into a secure warehouse neatly, but ultimately pointlessly, hammering home the central conceit of plebeians being starved while the higher classes feast. Throughout the production there is a conscious effort to distort dialogue into modern rhythms, removing the music of the verse and giving many scenes a ponderous pace that kills off all momentum. There are numerous instances of characters moving from point to point without any reason or conviction, seemingly to try and inject energy but without avail. The worst offenders pace back and forth or, in one particular instance, stand with hands on hips constantly shifting their weight from one foot to the other as if about to launch into a folk dance.
In the title role Sope Dirisu brings a strutting masculinity to Caius, looking every inch the warrior in battle scenes, though his approach to dialogue is a little one dimensional and he could use his pitch and tone much more effectively. Haydn Gwynne shows us just how effective a well-controlled voice can be as Volumnia, speaking her lines beautifully. A shame then that Jackson seems undecided in the first half of the play whether she is a shrewd manipulator or a sort of roman Mama Rose. When Coriolanus returns to wage war on his home she comes into her own, pleading with her son not to follow his course of action.
The most impressive performance comes in the form of James Corrigan’s mannered and martial Tullus Aufidius. He’s an excellent foil for Dirisu’s Coriolanus both as opponent in battle or when leaning into the homoeroticism of their later encounters after Caius is banished. Corrigan was excellent in last year’s Two Noble Kinsmen but has really come of age in this season with a string of measured performances.
This may be a somewhat plodding production that shows too little affection for Shakespeare’s words but there are moments of beauty to be admired!
Until 18 November. For more details and tickets head to https://www.rsc.org.uk/Coriolanus/