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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Coriolanus
RSC at Barbican  Autumn-Winter 2017

The Royal Shakespeare opens a London season of Roman plays (to include Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Titus Andronicus) with a Coriolanus oddly misdirected by Angus Jackson to be dispassionate to a point approaching undramatic, sedate in pacing to the point of ponderousness, and overdesigned without being impressive. 

A play that can be a highly dramatic exploration of the complexities of honour and vanity, along with the portrait of a great man with a single damning flaw, too rarely rises above empty talkiness.

Coriolanus is a military hero who, as a patrician, is expected to enter the government. But he can't disguise his deep, almost racist contempt for the common people, and they engineer his banishment. 

Enraged, he joins with his former enemies to attack Rome. Will he destroy his own country or betray his new allies? 

Like most Shakespeare tragedies, the play's success depends on our intimate identification with the hero, our ability to understand and accept the internal complexities of his makeup. 

Actor Sope Dirisu is allowed by his director to show the man's power and authority as a soldier. But he has been directed to underplay his patrician distaste for the commons. 

In a key scene Coriolanus is forced to follow a traditional ritual of standing in the marketplace requesting the votes of individual citizens. I have seen actors play him as almost retching with disgust at this debasement, but Dirisu is only allowed to grumble quietly while smilingly pressing the flesh like any politician. 

The second-most significant character in the play is the hero's mother, a warrior-queen who revels over her son's battle scars as proofs of his manhood. Haydn Gwynne captures the woman's imperiousness but not her bloodthirstiness, making her little more than just another snooty dowager.

In the play's other key scene she will have to beg her conquering avenger son to spare Rome, but the powerful irony of the moment is weakened if she never was the cheerleader for war. 

Throughout this production, scenes or moments that could give us startling insights into characters or make theoretical concepts like pride or the respect of enemies for each other come alive are underplayed to their loss. And in every case the fault lies not in failings of the actors but in the direction.

The curious bond between Coriolanus and his arch enemy and then ally Aufidius never becomes real, and actor James Corrigan is reduced to playing Aufidius as a mean-spirited loser. And Paul Jesson is made to play the hero's mentor Menenius without any real sense of the warm emotional connection between the two men. 

Meanwhile, the staging rarely illuminates or enhances the drama. The begging-for-mercy scene allows Coriolanus to stand apart from his petitioning mother, giving us little sense of her effect on him. And – spoiler alert – Coriolanus's death is just clumsily staged, with no clear sense of what's happening. 

At times the production seems as much about scenery as people, with designer Robert Innes Hopkins's unnecessarily massive sets moved on and off or flown in and out before every scene, all to no particular effect except to contribute to the sense of a slow-moving string of talky moments with too little forward momentum to carry the audience along through three hours.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Coriolanus - RSC at Barbican Theatre 2017  
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