Lots of societies have a delusion that they are run by men. Yes, the male segment may earn more and be in more positions of power than their female counterparts but, as the song says ‘behind every great man stands a woman’. Shakespeare knew this to be true and demonstrated the effect in great style in his play Coriolanus which has just returned home to Southwark’s Rose Playhouse.
Ancient Rome is in uproar. The ordinary folk of the city, the plebeians, are upset that they are hungry as their rulers, the patricians, are holding back grain. Chief among those hated by the plebeians is General Caius Marcius (Chris Royle) who, being from Rome’s upper classes, makes no secret of his loathing of ‘the many headed’. The plebeians have two Tribunes, Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus (Jack Fairley and Sam Perry), who represent them in government, and these two figures spend a lot of time stirring up hatred among the ordinary folk for General Marcius. The general is not alone as his friend, Senator Menenius Agrippa (Atilla Akinci) tries to find common ground between the patrician and the plebeians but, it’s not going to happen and Marcius decides to leave his domineering mother Volumnia (Alexandra Parker) and wife Virgilia (Kate Marston ) and go off and fight with Rome’s Consul and fellow General Cominius (James Meteyard) against the accursed Volscian army, commanded by Marcius’ arch nemesis Tullus Aufidius (Jamie Littlewood). At the siege of Corioli, Marcius is able to force open the gates of the city, and the Romans conquer it. As a reward for his efforts, Comenius bestows the title Coriolanus on Marcius. Surely now, the people will be ready to welcome their hero home and bestow all possible honours on Rome’s champion general – Caius Marcius Coriolanus?
This is my first viewing of Coriolanus and I have to say I think it one of the most complex and multi-layered of Shakespeare’s plays. We have an upper-class soldier who, thanks to his mother, finds himself thrust onto the political stage. Then, there is the mother herself, destined to rule through others. Addi into this the political intriguing of the two tribunes and already there is one heck of a play. Plus, to my mind, there was an additional element. Coriolanus really felt to me like one of the most homoerotic of all Shakespeare’s plays. The relationship between Marcius and just about every other man he came into contact with seemed to emanate a subtle sub-text that all was not as it appeared to the eye. This was particularly true of Marcius and Aufidius where the two men seemed to have a great affection for each other despite being bitter enemies. All told then, this really is a fascinating play.
And, it was delivered by an extremely good cast led by an amazing performance by Chris Royle in the title role. From the moment I first heard his voice, I was certain I was in the presence of a great man. I can’t even describe exactly what it was, whether the pacing or tone of Chris’s voice but I could easily understand why Coriolanus’ troops followed him so faithfully. At the same time, Chris managed to perfectly bring Marcius’ attitude to the plebeians – played by the audience – in a physical way so that every time he looked at someone you felt his despair at having to interact with such creatures. Chris really brings out every ounce of Coriolanus’ personality and delivers one of the most assured and splendid performances I have seen for a long time. Out of a first rate cast, I would also like to single out Alexandra Parker, playing Volumnia – Caius Marcius’ mother. Alexandra puts on a fascinating display of a woman used to being obeyed by all she meets and who when she glided across the stage instantly put me in mind of Joyce Grenfell’s poem “Stately as a Galleon”. And a final call out to the wonderful double act of Jack Fairley and Sam Perry as the two tribunes. These two were a lovely bit of comic relief to stop the story getting too heavy. The two actors had a lovely sense of timing and movement and when it came down to it, really knew what to do with a loaf of bread
Director Kate Littlewood makes full use of the space available, with the majority of the action taking place in The Rose’s thrust stage and some of the bigger scenes occurring out among the archaeological diggings. On the whole, this worked well but there were times when, due to the fence between the two parts of the theatre, it was difficult to see precisely what was happening. However, that is a minor quibble, as is my issues with military uniforms – a general would not have lance corporal’s stripes on his jacket. Overall then, this was a highly enjoyable production of a fascinating and intriguing play that is not seen often enough.
Review by Terry Eastham
Where does justice lie when a people rise up in democratic protest, but that protest becomes violent? To The Elephant follow their resounding success with Troilus and Cressida at Edfringe 2016 and The Rose Playhouse, with Coriolanus, another rarely performed play by Shakespeare that plunges us this time into the heart of power in Ancient Rome. In the midst of prolonged sectarian warfare, Rome tears itself apart, unable to support the commander who is winning victory after victory for the State.
This thrilling play dives straight into a violent clash between charismatic leadership and the democratic process itself, neither side truly being able to declare victory. The setting is the only ancient aspect of this play as democracy seems under threat around the world in 2017. The Rose Playhouse, with its layers of history sitting there for the taking, adds resonance to the timelessness of the theme.
Venue: The Rose Playhouse, 56 Park Street, London, SE1 9AR
Box office: http://www.roseplayhouse.org.uk/
or 020 7261 9565
Dates: Tuesday 5th to Friday 15th September 2017