REVIEW: Coriolanus, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, RSC

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2019
Sope Dirisu as Coriolanus at the RSC

We can be action heroes…

Gill Sutherland reviews Coriolanus, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, until 14th October

Watching a fork lift truck raise sacks of grain and do a painstakingly slow five-point turn before depositing them behind a fortified gate is boring. Deadly dull. The slo-mo action and repetitive bleep of the reverse warning signal make it marginally more interesting than watching paint dry. Yet this is how Rome season director, Angus Jackson, has chosen to open his Coriolanus, and the culmination of the Roman plays at the RSC.

Let’s believe it’s wry humour at work: instead of starting with the thunderclap of a people’s riot (à la this season’s Titus Andronicus) this plodding point pokes fun at our expectations (blood, war and passion, please) and also makes clear SOMEONE is stashing the commodities for themselves.

Darn those ruling elite and their selfish out-of-touch ways! And there we have it, the point of the play in a pithy political nutshell. Pretty soon the hungry people do appear — an angry mob dressed in modern day angry mob gear: de rigueur jeans, hoodies and baseball bats — and surge onto the RST stage, climbing the gated grain store and demanding justice, specifically snobby soldier Coriolanus’ ass on a plate.

Even though he has won wars and fought valiantly for his country (and has the scars to prove it) the people don’t like this arrogant alpha male — and the feeling is mutual; pride prevents him from pandering to the common people, who he accuses of being dogs with bad breath, ouch! Cue comeuppance with tragical consequences!

The tale is as old of time (well, OK, the dawn of so-called civilization) but given extra nuance by its up-to-date setting. Designer Robert Innes Hopkins’ vision is stark, metallic and slick. The modern dress leads one to make associations with our own discontented political climate and widening class differences, especially in the wake of Grenfell Tower and the fact that a quarter of the population live below the poverty line.

For the political effect of the play to fully hit home ideally you need your Coriolanus to be a proper stinker, a conceited plonker of the highest order. While Sope Dirisu (who found acclaim as Muhammad Ali in One Night In Miami at the Donmar last year) is a convincing warrior, his approach to character seems a dash too Hollywood. He’s dressed like Sylvester Stallone in action hero blockbuster The Expendables, and seems most at home when drenched in blood and gore and going into battle.

His one-on-one fight with arch-enemy Tullus Aufidius, the Volscian army’s top dog played with verve and wit by James Corrigan, is sublimely choreographed and genuinely exciting to watch. Yet in the scenes arguing his case with the people or the more intimate ones with his mother Volumnia (Haydn Gwynne is show-stealingly brilliant as the overbearing and intense matriarch) or his dutiful wife Virgilia (a perfectly nervy and tender Hannah Morrish) this Coriolanus is less believable. Dirisu sometimes delivered lines too quickly and with inscrutable psychology. ‘What’s he thinking?’ I kept thinking.

The traditional male tribunes of the plebians (voice of the people) Sicinius and Junius are here played by Jackie Morrison and Martina Laird as besuited office workers. They whip up dissent and unleash trouble against Coriolanus like meddling, bungling middle managers — which is effective. Paul Jesson as appeasing elder patrician Menenius is also convincing as a fatherly figure to the impetuous Coriolanus.

By the end of the production, which zipped along at a happy pace, I was left entertained but not entirely conquered.