Review: Coriolanus, The Barbican Theatre

Rome season is upon us. Directed by Angus Jackson, the Royal Shakespeare company present three of Shakespeare’s plays centring on Roman history: Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, and Coriolanus. A tragedy, written somewhere between 1605 and 1608, it chronicles the life of legendary Roman leader Caius Marcius Coriolanus (Sope Dirisu). Once a hero of Rome, he becomes exiled and an enemy of the people after showing obvious contempt for the lower class and their concerns following a devastated famine. Driven by an ambitious and devoted mother, Volumnis (Haydn Gwynne), he struggles to find his place as both a ruthless soldier, and loving family-man.

Dirisu showcases Coriolanus’ passions, both for his family and his position, and the way in which this inner conflict between the pair causes turmoil within him, ultimately leading to a fatal blunder. His inability to fully commit to either role, to try and force himself into complete hardness or to succumb to the sensitivity his family are begging him to show, is tortuous to watch.

Gwynne is a gives a powerhouse performance as mother and matriarch Volumnia, the only one able to guide him out of the red mist. Watching their dynamic is a joy, as a man becomes a boy in the presence of his mother. A particularly heart-wrenching moment comes as Coriolanus, stood tall and strong, is scolded by his mother, and with a quivering lip and watering eyes, the great man is reduced to tears.

Charles Aitken as Cominius brings much-needed wisdom and welcome but brief comic relief. Veletus (Jackie Morrison) and Brutus (Martina Laird) are recast as women, but I’m not sure it brings any extra value to the play. As Morrison and Laird march across the stage in pencil skirts and heels, rallying the ‘plebeians’, they lack conviction, and it feels like change for changes’ sake.

Although set in Ancient Rome, this productions design by Robert Innes Hopkins brings it forward to an urban city, both classic and contemporary, much like modern Rome, featuring classic art and velvet loveseats. The production feels updated, complimented by clean symmetrical lighting by Richard Howell and stylish sleek costume of suedes, silks and chic tailoring.

This production of Coriolanus remains true to the emotion of the play, and we can appreciate that is doesn’t try to be too clever. The RSC aren’t trying to reinvent this one, but rather lift it and graft it on to the 21st Century. Viscerally beautiful, but lengthy and testing, this tragedy will please those who enjoy the original text.

Coriolanus played the Barbican Theatre until 18th November. For more information, see www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2017/event/royal-shakespeare-company-coriolanus