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Shakespeareana

Available versions

1984: Elijah Moshinsky

2012: Ralph Fiennes

2018: Angus Jackson, Robin Lough


Coriolanus
2018: Robin Lough

This is a film made of a live performance of Coriolanus from the 2017 Royal Shakespeare Company season. It’s the conscious product of the world of Brexit and Trump: the question of the intersection of a flawed but principled political figure and the vagaries of the fickle populus is much on everyone’s minds. The question of how much one ought to shape Shakespeare’s plays to current affairs is always a meaningful one, to which there is no simple answer — but those questions indisputably lie just beneath the surface here.

As if to enforce that sense with an appropriate aesthetic sensibility, it is set (as are most modern Royal Shakespeare Company productions) in a mannered modern setting, with a peculiar melange of imagery in the sets and costuming that evoke ancient Rome only indirectly, but overlays its modernism with a veneer of twentieth-century totalitarianism. It shows neither a vision of the historical Rome nor the Elizabethan view of that world. It’s awash in military uniforms, stylish dresses and tuxedos reflective of a timeless era ranging from perhaps 1930 to 2000.

For all that, I believe that this version manages to capture, better than any other available version, what is essential about the play. Its performances are exceptionally compelling, and will outlast the local contexts that brought them to the fore. Sope Dirisu as Marcius Coriolanus himself has more warmth and humanity than any of the others I have seen, and he presents that through a remarkable range of moods and vocal colorations; he carries that peculiar mixture of gravitas, pride, humility, and inflexibility that mark him out as a tragic hero from the start. Principled, volatile, unbending, and passionate, his very unwillingness to compromise his principles undermines his credit with the crowd and dooms him to exile and ultimately to death.

Volumnia’s pleas famously turn Coriolanus aside from his attack on Rome; here that brittle and difficult scene (in which Volumnia plays against her almost-mute son for more than eighty lines, where he gives her only the briefest of responses) packs more power than I had hitherto found in it, as enacted with extraordinary aplomb by Haydn Gwynne. Her own moral arc and development as a character is scarcely less than that of Coriolanus himself, and Gwynne allows us to see that. She carries off the one-sided conversations with enough variation and nuance to keep her unfolding mind constantly engaging. Some of this may be ascribed to very intelligent staging; some of it is just her capability as an actress.

The two tribunes are played (in defiance of both the script and Roman historical practice) by women; both play their parts well, however, pointing, perhaps, to a more contemporary political reality; squaring them with the historical Roman tribunes may be problematic for some viewers, but they play their roles as cynical political operators quite plausibly.

Menenius is played by Paul Jesson, who played Cominius thirty-three years previously for the BBC Shakespeare Plays series. There he was dressed in Elizabethan garb; here he’s dressed in a tuxedo. He carries off both parts very well indeed.

All in all, given the delivery of the lines, which is extraordinarily transparent and understandable, and the thoughtful if unconventional staging, this is a very accessible version of the play for the first-time viewer. It may be useful to balance it with a more traditional rendition of the play (the only one out there is probably the BBC version), but its engagement and immediacy is enough to draw a viewer into the occasionally off-putting abstractions and tonalities that can sometimes encumber the more severe renditions.

The DVD is accompanied by a commentary with the director and the composer of the music (which plays a large role here). It’s worth hearing.

Adrian:  Sean Hart

Aedile:  Bally Gill

Aedile:  Rebecca Wingate

Aedile:  Sean Hart

Aedile:  Simon Yadoo

Caius Marcius, later Coriolanus:  Sope Dirisu

Cominius:  Charles Aitken

First Citizen:  Geoffrey Lumb

First Senator:  Christopher Middleton

First Senator:  Rebecca Wingate

Gentlewoman:  Esther Niles

Herald:  Simon Yadoo

Junius Brutus:  Martina Laird

Menenius:  Paul Jesson

Nicanor:  Robert Ginty

Roman Citizen:  Assad Zaman

Roman Citizen:  Bally Gill

Roman Citizen:  Christopher Middleton

Roman Citizen:  Esther Niles

Roman Citizen:  Katherine Toy

Roman Citizen:  Rebecca Wingate

Roman Citizen:  Robert Ginty

Roman Citizen:  Sean Hart

Roman Citizen:  Tony Boncza

Roman Soldier:  Bally Gill

Second Senator:  Assad Zaman

Second Senator:  Tony Boncza

Seond Citizen:  Justine Marriott

Servant:  Simon Yadoo

Servant:  Tony Boncza

Sicinius Velutus:  Jackie Morrison

Soldier:  Christopher Middleton

Titus Lartius:  Ben Hall

Tullus Aufidius:  James Corrigan

Valeria:  Katherine Toy

Virgilia:  Hannah Morrish

Volumnia:  Haydn Gwynne

Watch:  Assad Zaman

Watch:  Esther Niles

Young Martius:  Hector Magraw

Supernumeraries:  Joe Deverell-Smith; Brandon Dodsworth; Katherine Gee-Finch; Noma Julius; Robert Moore; Rebecca Pratt; Karen Rowley; Shiv Sharma

Stage director:  Angus Jackson

Screen director:  Robin Lough